Make room: I'm on bandwagon

O's come out swinging

March 04, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Orioles left $24 million worth of hitting back in Fort Lauderdale when they opened their exhibition season against the Florida Marlins yesterday at Roger Dean Stadium, and nobody even noticed.

Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro dodged the first bus ride of the spring, but the Orioles still piled up eight runs and 10 hits against the likes of Josh Beckett and Al Leiter and left me wondering how I could have doubted them all winter.

I know it's just spring training, but all the skepticism had drained out of me by the sixth inning, when the Orioles put up a three-spot to take control of the game and carve out a place right at the top of the Grapefruit League standings.

And we're not talking about some garden variety attack of preseason hubris. We're talking that unbridled, Jim Hunter, way-to-go-Gibby, turn-that-frown-upside-down brand of optimism -- the kind of attitude that sends you down to your local Lexus dealer for a test drive right after you buy a lotto ticket ... just in case.

Jay Gibbons followed up his grand slam in Wednesday's intrasquad game with two hits yesterday. Brian Roberts and fill-in shortstop Chris Gomez also had a couple of knocks each. Five of the six Orioles pitchers did not give up an earned run. I went by the visiting radio booth in the seventh inning and Hunter was glowing so much that Joe Angel was rummaging through his briefcase for sunscreen.

I'm not saying that Hunter has been known to sugarcoat some things over the past few years, but if the Orioles ever do have a really good team, he could send the whole city of Baltimore into diabetic shock.

My normal inclination would have been to calmly talk Hunter down off the bandwagon before he jumped to another outrageously positive conclusion, but I just couldn't do it. I was too busy climbing on board. Forget everything I said in December. This team is going places.

"I think it's going to be a fun year," said outfielder Larry Bigbie, who singled and drove in a run. "Not only because of the type of offense that we are going to have, but also because we've got a bunch of guys who get along real well. It just seems like it's going to be a fun year, and the lineup is going to be exciting from the leadoff guy to the guy in the nine hole. We're looking forward to it."

Of course, Bigbie has to say that, but I don't. I lambasted the front office throughout the offseason for not moving decisively enough to shore up the pitching staff. Now I'm having visions of Sidney Ponson slimming down to 210 pounds and winning 25 games.

(I've also been dreaming of me slimming down to 210 pounds, but I always wake up and end up making myself a sandwich.)

I thought Jim Beattie would get a kick out of this, so I told him about my sudden change of heart, but he just kind of stared at me. I pointed out that a funny quip now and then might, well, humanize him, which is no small feat when you consider that he grew up in New England and played for the Yankees.

"I can neither be humanized nor humorous," he said.

Fair enough, but he could at least tell Mike Flanagan to stop ignoring my phone calls.

I thought that I would eventually bring Hunter around to the concept of journalistic objectivity, but it turned out the other way around. I used to think he was in his own little world, and now I'm buying a condo in Jimmyville. What's it like to be a part of such a fantastic lineup, Gibby?

"It's an exciting thought," Gibbons said, "with Sammy in the middle of the lineup and Melvin and Miggie [Tejada] around him. That's scary. I might bat eighth in this lineup and there's no shame in that."

Of course there isn't. Bill Mueller won the American League batting title out of the eight hole for the Boston Red Sox in 2003. The Orioles could have a former 100-RBI guy in that slot, now that Gibbons appears to be back from last year's injury nightmare.

I'm even getting excited about the Triple-A guys. First base prospect Walter Young hit a foul ball so far down the right-field line yesterday that I think it set off the alarms at the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum a couple of miles away.

(And, yes, there really is a Burt Reynolds museum in Jupiter. You need a whole day just to get through the Smokey and the Bandit wing.)

Fortunately, manager Lee Mazzilli was around to keep everything in its proper perspective.

"It's the first game, but it's good no matter when you play," Mazzilli said. "I think this club is going to score some runs."

This could be a very interesting season for a lot of reasons, from the arrival of Sosa to the development of the young starting rotation to the presence of some market competition in Washington.

Yesterday was just the beginning.

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