IF THE Orioles were going nowhere again this season, it wouldn't matter that reliever Jason Grimsley was making a semi-miraculous and somewhat mysterious recovery from Tommy John surgery. Who cares about a 37-year-old pitcher on a losing team?
But with the Orioles trying to turn their surprisingly fast start into a yearlong run for the playoffs, Grimsley's possible return looms as the definitive test of the good karma that has surrounded the club throughout the season.
When veteran pitching help unexpectedly falls out of the sky and lands in your bullpen - just in time to shape your trading deadline plans and possibly make a difference down the stretch - it could be that you're destined to get all the breaks and accomplish big things.
On the other hand, if the sudden promise of Grimsley's return that arose yesterday proves false, it could mean the Orioles' good luck is starting to turn.
Don't believe in such whimsy? You didn't see the incredulity in the eyes of Orioles co-general manager Jim Beattie when he was asked yesterday if anyone in the organization had expected Grimsley back in 2005.
"I know I didn't," he said.
Discussing the ligament-replacement elbow surgery that Grimsley underwent in October - a complex procedure that can sideline pitchers for a year to 18 months - Beattie said, "I don't know what they transplanted [into him]. Maybe they transplanted something different."
Wow. And you don't believe in karma? It could be Grimsley's surgeons transplanted a good-luck voodoo figurine into his elbow instead of a new ligament. Or maybe a shredded newspaper article about the 1997 forced resignation of then-Orioles manager Davey Johnson, inserted as an attempt to finally cast off the evil spirits that fateful (and foolish) event surely brought on the franchise.
Alone in first place since April 23, the Orioles certainly have played as if their seven-year losing spell had been vanquished.
And regardless, when the GM muses about the possibility of "something different" than a ligament being transplanted into a pitcher's elbow, things are obviously starting to get weird. What better time to measure karma?
Grimsley had pretty much symbolized bad luck since his arrival in a trade last June, even though he pitched effectively for the Orioles, compiling a 1.50 ERA in 34 appearances after the All-Star break. The problem was the club had illogically obtained him from Kansas City for Denny Bautista, a promising pitcher 13 years younger. There was no righting that wrong, a violation of one of baseball's cardinal rules. (Don't trade older.)
The deal looked that much worse when Grimsley underwent his surgery shortly after last season, seemingly signaling the end of his career with the Orioles. (He is in the last year of his contract.) The Orioles went out and signed another veteran right-handed reliever, Steve Reed, figuring Grimsley was done.
But now, suddenly, the situation looks different. Bautista, though still undeniably promising, is on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. And Grimsley could be coming back from nowhere just in time to help the Orioles try to pull off one of the game's biggest surprises in 2005.
Talk about a turnaround.
"He says he's throwing hard," Beattie said, "with no pain, no ice, no painkillers."
Just a voodoo figurine.
Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli took the cautious approach yesterday, preferring not to count on Grimsley's return until seeing him today. The pitcher is flying in from his home in Kansas City to throw for the front office this afternoon at Camden Yards.
"It sounds like he's way, way ahead of schedule," Mazzilli said, "but we'll know more when we see him."
Beattie guessed Grimsley might still need another month of rehabilitation before he's fully ready, but that would still have a huge impact on the personnel's decision-making. It would be as if they had traded for a useful reliever without giving anything up, a colossal stroke of luck.
"He would strengthen our bullpen, no question," Mazzilli said.
Conspiracy theorists will point out that the club might be excited about getting something out of Grimsley this year because it would lessen the heat generated by the dreadful, unpopular trade that brought him here.
At the same time, it could be suggested that Grimsley is excited about coming back because he would be joining a playoff race.
Whatever its explanation, talk of Grimsley's return smacks of the kind of big break teams tend to get in winning seasons.
So you might want to hold your breath when it's time for him to throw for club officials today.
There's more than just one pitcher's return on the line.