Weaknesses of Yanks, Sox may speed up O's recovery

Baseball

February 17, 2004

WHEN MIKE FLANAGAN and Jim Beattie took over the Orioles in December 2002, the Red Sox were accusing the Yankees of being "The Evil Empire." The Orioles' vice presidents were, even then, amused at how obsessively preoccupied the Red Sox and Yankees were with each other.

Good, the duo smiled. Let 'em whale on each other for a few years while we execute our plan.

In Baltimore, there are two ways of looking at the obscene arms race between the two division powerhouses to the north:

Freak out because you can't keep up, or hope you're discounted or overlooked as you steadily build a realistic contender.

Competitive balance for baseball is not going to happen. Total revenue sharing and TV dollars all-around are not part of any business plan this group of owners is endorsing. The luxury tax has yet to scare off George Steinbrenner.

That leaves the Orioles, Blue Jays, Devil Rays and anyone else who's not the Yankees and Red Sox one option.

"Um, it's out of our hands. I don't get too involved. I just worry about what we do," Flanagan said yesterday.

The theory in this American League East outpost is that one day, the Yankees and/or the Red Sox will wake up very old, very dysfunctional, very broken.

It's not as farfetched as it sounds, even as the best, most expensive player in baseball (Alex Rodriguez) was officially traded yesterday to the winningest, most expensive team in baseball (Yankees).

Lament all you want the fact that earlier this winter, Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, told the Orioles that Baltimore was not a good fit and now the reigning AL Most Valuable Player is going to the Bronx.

Go ahead and call this the latest sign of a pinstripe apocalypse. Nothing is etched in stone.

Look at the big picture and it shows plenty of cracks and potential fissures.

Alfonso Soriano's stock may have plummeted in his disastrous postseason, but he did hit .290 last year with 38 homers and 91 RBIs. The Yankees replaced a very dynamic hitter (Soriano) with one who's no doubt a notch above, but it's not as if the Yankees simply added A-Rod.

Also, A-Rod at third base is not as defensively devastating as A-Rod at shortstop.

That means Derek Jeter, who was already under relentless scrutiny for his defense, won't get a minute's peace from The Boss down to WFAN Radio.

Gone are Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells, aging yes, but certainly a more reliable starting rotation than the one now anchored by Javier Vazquez (the Bronx is different from Montreal and San Juan) and Kevin Brown, whose odds in Vegas make him even money to be on the disabled list by May.

Jason Giambi is coming off knee surgery, under the gun from Steinbrenner for the $121 million contract and under scrutiny for his testimony about steroids in front of a grand jury that has led to the indictment of four people.

Bernie Williams is now even older. Mike Mussina is even more aloof. Gary Sheffield won't know what's going to hit him in the New York media squall.

And the man responsible for guiding the Yankees through four World Series titles in eight years, Joe Torre, is now a lame duck fed up running shotgun between Steinbrenner and the team.

Now Torre is without bench coach and confidant Don Zimmer, who quit, and first base coach Lee Mazzilli, the Orioles' new manager.

Things can go real bad real fast, even on a team loaded with talent.

Which leads us to Manny Ramirez.

Just like the Yankees, the Red Sox have their share of issues, not the least of which is Ramirez, who was almost traded to the Rangers while Nomar Garciaparra could have gone to the White Sox.

Ramirez was put on irrevocable waivers, which means he'll be even less motivated than he was last season, when he took a few days off with a sore throat during a home series against the Yankees.

Credit manager Grady Little with handling the Ramirez situation last season in a way that kept the clubhouse from fracturing. Now Little is gone, thanks to his AL Championship Series Game 7 brainlock.

If Steinbrenner's expectations in New York make team chemistry the work of a magician, the fragile psyches of Red Sox Nation will bear down even harder on the team after what happened in October.

Then there's Kevin Millar.

As the gregarious team leader who invented the "Cowboy Up" brand of chemistry, Millar will have to find new soothing slogans to deflate the pressure on the Sox.

This is the same Kevin Millar who said A-Rod would be better for the Sox than Garciaparra.

Um, at last check, Nomar is still wearing No. 5 for Boston.

Everybody happy?

As the old baseball saying goes: When things go bad, they can go real bad, real fast, especially with so many egos and so much money on the line.

That's where the Orioles and every other team that sticks to a solid plan can derive at least some sense of satisfaction.

By adding Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson, by drafting Adam Loewen and by trading Jeff Conine and Ponson and acquiring minor league talent in return, the Orioles have done a solid job of positioning the club for a run in 2005 and 2006.

By the trade deadline this summer and free-agent period next winter, the Orioles will again be in position to increase payroll by another $20 million, when the contracts of David Segui, Buddy Groom and Marty Cordova are erased.

This is how the Orioles are attempting to build a stable, productive team that's more resistant to the problems of aging, ego-clashing, overspending and owner impulsiveness or stupidity.

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