Storm George kicks up surf, but O's tread water, wait

December 05, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WE LOOK OUT to sea this winter's day and wonder how to keep faith alive. Our little skipjack of a baseball team is off the radar. It might be in danger.

Up north, a wildly inequitable and imperfect storm is in full brew. It's a menace to any vessel that's not an aircraft carrier (Yankees) or supertanker (Red Sox).

Hurricane George is whipping up whitecaps that threaten to capsize our little skipjack as it trudges cautiously out to free-agent sea.

"Is that an iceberg, Mike?" Admiral Beattie calls.

"No, just Scott Boras," Captain Flanagan replies.

"Steer clear!"

With Orioles' promises of American League East competitiveness as soon as this coming season, time feels like it's starting to run short.

We're told it's a buyer's market, a waiting game.

We're told the floodgates will open after Sunday, after Dec. 20 and again in January, when players will be scrambling for invitations to camp.

We've been told there's time, even though the Orioles are looking for a few great players, not a slew of good ones.

Right now, the Orioles have to get on the radar screen and light it up red as Rudolph's nose. Draft picks are increasingly more dicey in baseball these days, especially position players, so why worry about losing a pick if a free agent is ready to roll?

It's of little consequence that George Steinbrenner's mad deal- making and trading of farm-raised talent could be the start of the Yankees' next down cycle.

Remember the 1980s, when the 26-time world champs weren't world champs? Can't wait to get back to the future, ASAP.

Hurricane George is out of control again. Trade 25-year-old Nick Johnson to the Expos after Johnson had a better postseason than hobbled $120 million man Jason Giambi?

It's a sign of Yankees insanity. That's exactly what Beattie and Flanagan said they'd be looking for in order to forecast their timetable for rebuilding the Orioles.

What goes up, must come down. And vice versa -- or so the twin GMs are betting.

With the kind of young pitching the Orioles have in their stable, the real timetable for contention isn't 2004, but 2005 and 2006. Still, at this point in a winter that the Orioles promised no more discontent, it's impossible not to feel deluged under the heavy surf spawned by Hurricane George.

In addition to newly acquired starter Javier Vazquez, the Yankees are set to announce the signing of veteran slugger Gary Sheffield. Next could be Kevin Brown, Andy Pettitte, Kaz Matsui, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and whoever else isn't nailed down or is living within local cell phone range of Steinbrenner in Tampa, Fla.

Last winter, Steinbrenner took David Wells out for hamburgers, then signed his pet pitcher. Now, he's giving Sheffield a choice of three proposals to choose from, without a peep from alleged GM Brian Cashman.

"I think he's always participated at this level," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said yesterday of Steinbrenner. "The idea that he's backed off in recent years and left it to the professionals, that's not accurate.

"If this move he made [yesterday] is his [for Vazquez], it's a good one in light of their desire to regain dominance in their division, not that they will. I don't think they will, necessarily," Angelos said.

"Of course, if you have unlimited sources of money to spend foolishly, then you can move impetuously."

Meanwhile, a Nor'easter out of Boston similarly promises to founder any skipjack that doesn't send its captain to the desert to knock on Curt Schilling's front door.

That's what Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein did, personally negotiating a contract extension and guaranteeing to hire Terry Francona as manager. He even volunteered to wash and wax Schilling's car.

Tales of deal-making from these northern ports are truly sensational, although the Orioles refuse to flinch.

"I'm eager. You're eager," Angelos said. "The fans are eager, but Mike and Beattie have to control that patience to guarantee good results. I think you have to wait until [the winter meetings in New Orleans]. At that point, you can better determine [if the Orioles are being too cautious]."

The Orioles are not in the mood for quick fixes or one-year rentals. Sheffield and Schilling don't make sense. But, boy, Derrek Lee would have been nice.

At 28, with a Gold Glove and a big bat, Lee was perfect. He was exactly the kind of trade/acquisition the Orioles must make to officially signal the start of their stated commitment to upgrading positions.

Now, as the Red Sox and Yankees stockpile a combined $120 million in pitching -- that's just pitching -- the Orioles are onto catcher Javy Lopez.

Lopez has caught fewer games in his career than Ivan Rodriguez, which might actually make this 33-year-old catcher "younger" in baseball years. However, for sheer box office appeal and production, I-Rod is so much more compelling -- especially if the Marlins are only offering two years at $16 million.

At some point, the skipjack must let 'er rip.

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