O's tough off field, but what about on it?

April 02, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE DECISIVE victory Peter Angelos scored over Major League Baseball in the Nationals negotiations is a huge moment for the Orioles - one of their best in recent years, not that that's saying much.

Thanks to Angelos' hard bargaining, the franchise is assured of remaining a large-market entity with the financial wherewithal to compete. It is immunized against threats posed by the presence of a new team just down the road, a protection other teams that share markets surely envy.

But while Angelos could and should walk tall in the wake of his landmark off-field victory, it's on-field victories that this city really craves.

The off-field success obviously has more important long-term ramifications, but no one around town is going to get too excited about it after seven straight losing seasons.

In other words, now that Angelos has secured the Orioles' future, he needs to do something about securing the past - living up to the winning tradition that used to define the Orioles.

How about a season over .500? How about a team that doesn't wilt against the Yankees? How about a September in which the games actually matter?

How about a bona fide No. 1 for the starting rotation?

The Orioles are overdue to provide all of that. And they're now officially out of excuses for failing to do so.

If the Nationals' arrival distracted the organization, that cloud is now clearing. And the financial conditions Angelos negotiated give his team a distinct upper hand over the Nationals, which should translate directly to the diamond. A lopsided cable revenue split means more payroll for the Orioles, and in theory, better players.

Competing with the Yankees and Red Sox is, of course, another matter and a daunting challenge. Those teams spend like no other in their drive to rule the world. Trying to keep up is almost impossible.

But it is time for the Orioles to take a better whack at it.

A new season begins in two days, and at the very least, it promises to be more interesting. Sammy Sosa's presence alone assures that. (Prediction: .278, 41 homers, 108 RBIs.) The everyday lineup is good enough for the postseason. Miguel Tejada - in his prime and seeing more hittable pitches with Sosa now behind him in the order - should have nothing short of an MVP-caliber season.

But then there is the pitching. Oh, yeah, that.

Actually, the Orioles' bullpen looks relatively solid. Some forecasters are calling it the best in the American League. That's going too far. But B.J. Ryan is ready to close, and lefty Steve Kline is an old pro who should make eighth innings easier on the nerves. Jorge Julio might shine out of the closer's spotlight.

The starting pitching is less certain, to say the least. The Orioles went into the offseason knowing they needed to upgrade their rotation, but they failed for a variety of reasons. Free agent Carl Pavano preferred the Yankees. Tim Hudson didn't really want to come. The front office grew hesitant as the saga of the Nationals' arrival unfolded. Most of the available arms were overpriced.

But now the Orioles have to live with what didn't happen.

Opening Day starter Rodrigo Lopez is underappreciated and probably good for double-digit wins, but let's face it, he'd be no better than a fourth or fifth starter for the Yankees or Red Sox. Daniel Cabrera is a terrific talent who was downright imposing during spring training, but he hasn't even pitched a full season in the majors.

And those are the sure things.

Erik Bedard? He's another terrific talent who went 6-10 a year ago. Sidney Ponson? Do we have to rehash everything again? He might be OK, and he might pop like an old balloon. It's up to him. And as much as you want to root for fifth-starter candidates Rick Bauer and Bruce Chen, both have a lot to prove.

Is all that enough to put the team over .500 for the first time since 1997? It had better be, for the sake of those in charge. Despite his decisive victory at the bargaining table, Angelos is going to be furious if the Orioles stumble and lose fans to the new team in the neighborhood. Someone will pay, and with manager Lee Mazzilli and co-general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan all in the final years of their contracts, you can guess who.

An eighth straight losing season would almost surely result in a new decision-making team, which would mean more transition for the franchise, which is no way to break out of a losing rut.

The alternative, a winning season, would reward fans who have endured years of losing with the kinds of victories they really covet - those scored in between the white lines.

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