Spring looks a lot sunnier for O's fans

January 15, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

EVERYBODY PACK. Shorts. Sandals. Sunglasses. Sun block. Enthusiasm. Hope.

It's now officially time to get ready for spring training. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 20. First full-squad workout is Feb. 25. Tell me you're not in a Florida frame of mind? Can't you picture it? Lee Mazzilli clapping his hands, wondering how he got so lucky? Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie trying to curb "we told you so" grins.

Peter Angelos unfazed by rumors that this major Orioles makeover was a preemptive move to hike the price Major League Baseball must pay to relocate the Expos to D.C., then a quick sale of the suddenly star-studded Orioles team.

Please, this is baseball. There's always a theory, especially when it comes to an Orioles team that for six long years was one of the most depressed franchises in baseball, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not to mention the worthlessness of Confederate money, harrowing 4-32 September slides and more fourth-place finishes than a $7,000 claiming horse.

But look now, children of Oriole Nation. The picture is complete. And what a startling, robust picture it is. Good enough to get the Orioles' season opener against the Red Sox moved up a day early for ESPN's coveted national Sunday night game.

It's almost enough to make dispirited Orioles boycotters rethink their position. How much are those 20-game packages? The Orioles have finished their winter spending spree: Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and, now, Sidney Ponson starring as Opening Day pitcher and cherry on top.

Please, no jokes about the physical fitness of the cranky but lovable Aruban knight. Of course Ponson is lovable. He's an Oriole again, thanks to a three-year, $22.5 million contract that makes everyone look good.

The Orioles got Kurt Ainsworth and prospect Ryan Hannaman for Ponson at the trade deadline. Ponson gets to come back to a place he wanted to stay for slightly more money than the Orioles offered in July.

Now, it's all about that kiss-and-make-up session between Ponson and Beattie, then the Orioles can steal the old Pirates theme song, "We Are Family."

Maybe Ponson realized what Ken Griffey Sr. tried to tell Ken Griffey Jr. just before Junior said he wanted out of Seattle: No team treats you as well as your first team treats you.

Not that Ponson's probably not better off after his pennant-drive stint with the Giants. He's now an innings-eating, 27-year-old, playoff-seasoned pitcher.

Hopefully, there'll be no more insecurity or frustration on Ponson's part, which the Orioles fueled by dangling him on the trade market the past two seasons. Contract negotiations can muddle the heads of many good pitchers, but Ponson needed fewer distractions than some during his testy, formative years. Now it's settled.

Ponson should feel good that the Orioles want him. Let's give Sir Sidney the benefit of the doubt that he wants to make use of his natural talent and acquired pitching skills. He was a sight to behold last season, attempting to show up the Orioles for not signing him by pitching with his head and arm -- and winning.

Meanwhile, the Orioles were more desperate than they showed this winter to get Ponson back in the rotation, especially once they made offense a priority and chose not to go hard after Bartolo Colon or seal a deal with the Expos for Javier Vazquez.

Yesterday, the Orioles again confirmed that they're ready to let Ainsworth, Matt Riley and Eric DuBose rack up innings this season, unlike last season when they had hoped Rick Helling and Omar Daal could sneak them through the transition.

Unless the Orioles were going to start working the phones to attempt a trade for a pitcher, Ponson's "homecoming" is all the more important, especially with Rodrigo Lopez getting crushed in Mexico and no guarantee Daal will straighten out.

Everyone will know the Orioles are seriously attempting to contend with the Angels, Red Sox, Yankees and Athletics once they start obsessing about front-line pitching.

Colon, Kelvim Escobar, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown and Vazquez are big-name pitchers who moved to teams other than the Orioles. Even the Blue Jays shored up their rotation, snagging Pat Hentgen, Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly, and the Astros are suddenly a force with the addition of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

That's not something the Orioles can promise this season, but that's OK. Look at the explosive loot they collected in one stellar sweep of a depressed free-agent market:

A former AL MVP in Tejada who mans a position of great importance -- defensive and historical -- in Baltimore, a catcher in Lopez who slugged 43 homers and is not represented by Scott Boras (why hasn't Ivan Rodriguez signed anywhere yet?) and a Gold Glove first baseman with 500 homers in Palmeiro who was available for less than $5 million and who now says if he gets to Cooperstown, it's going to be in an Orioles cap.

It's more than enough to make you forget the long, fruitless tango the Orioles danced through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's with Vladimir Guerrero. May the new Angel's formerly herniated back hold up against that violent swing.

Meanwhile, watch the Orioles tuck away that $78 million they did not splurge on Vlad and add it to the pot left over after David Segui, Marty Cordova and Daal are swept off the books next offseason. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

For now, it's simply time to pack. Shorts. Sandals. Sunglasses. Sun block. The works.

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