Inside The Orioles' Historic Collapse

Anatomy Of A Doomed Season

October 16, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN REPORTER

Miguel Tejada should have been upbeat and excited in the clubhouse after the Orioles' victory in Oakland on Aug. 17.

Instead, the Orioles' star shortstop and emotional centerpiece was morose and combative with reporters.

Even though the Orioles had just put themselves back into the playoff race by completing a surprising three-game sweep of the Oakland A's, Tejada seemed to grasp that his team was doomed.

The normally ebullient All-Star showered quickly, put on a pinstriped suit, hid behind sunglasses and snapped at reporters, "Why do you want to talk to me?"

No wonder he was in a bad mood. Everywhere he looked in the clubhouse - or in the entire Orioles organization, for that matter - he saw conflict, question marks, tension, dysfunction. Virtually everyone was either embroiled in controversy or facing uncertainty with the team.

Tejada's gloomy outlook was foreboding: the weight of the many conflicts and problems eventually would bring the Orioles down with a thunderous crash. Their record in their last 92 games (32-60) was the worst percentage-wise since 1900 of any team that played .600 ball over the first 70 games.

Long gone were the high hopes of earlier in the season, when the Orioles had enjoyed a 62-day stay in first place.

They had raised fans' expectations before the season began by trading for Sammy Sosa, one of the game's all-time home run leaders. A rejuvenated Rafael Palmeiro overcame an early slump and charged toward the 3,000-hit milestone. Tejada and Brian Roberts bolted out of the chute as early MVP candidates. And, a young pitching staff delivered on its promise.

Then came the Great Fall of 2005, a cautionary tale about the poisonous effect of uncertainty and bad news on a group dynamic.

Injuries mounted. Sosa proved to be a bust. Palmeiro tested positive for steroids and was suspended. Sidney Ponson pitched poorly and continued to experience off-field problems, including a DUI arrest. Manager Lee Mazzilli was fired. Losses piled up. Fans became embittered.

"It will be another half-century before we go through anything like that again," said Elrod Hendricks, the team's longtime bullpen coach.

Even when the Orioles were riding high after 70 games, they were on the verge of imploding. Some players disliked Mazzilli. The front office was split into factions. The clubhouse was a powder keg waiting to explode.

"Pretty much the whole year was kind of like a dysfunctional relationship," relief pitcher Steve Kline said.

Hope fading fast[Given all the conflict, it was amazing how well the team played early. As the rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox floundered, the Orioles led the division for 62 straight days. Fans were beginning to believe they would at least contend for the playoffs, a welcome change after seven straight losing seasons.

Injuries to catcher Javy Lopez and young starting pitcher Erik Bedard and a serious staph infection that sidelined Sosa didn't deter the team.

But the front office suspected all along that it was a mirage.

"We did very well at the beginning of the season, but we took advantage of the schedule. We were home, and we were playing the easier part of our schedule," said executive vice president Jim Beattie.

Knowing the schedule for the second half included four West Coast trips, as opposed to none in the first half, Beattie and others in the organization almost saw the fall coming.

"We knew we needed to be 15, 20 games over .500 by the All-Star break in order for us to have a pretty good year," he said.

They were seven games over .500 at the break and already fading fast.

The collapse began in earnest after the All-Star break. In Minnesota for a three-game series, the Orioles won the opener but lost Game 2 when All-Star closer B.J. Ryan blew his second consecutive save. Then they lost Game 3 when Jason Grimsley allowed a ninth-inning homer.

After the latter loss, players left the field numb. Beginning to doubt themselves, they wordlessly handed their caps to the young clubhouse attendant whose job was to gather equipment.

The situation was ripe for the team to make a major trade to bolster its playoff chances. Weeks of speculation ensued as Beattie and the other man in charge of the baseball operation, vice president Mike Flanagan, sorted through possibilities.

Outfielder Larry Bigbie struggled on the field, distracted by rumors involving him. During batting practice before a game in Minnesota, he saw Beattie talking on a cell phone. The sensitive Bigbie knew exactly what the conversation was about.

He was right. But the trade involving him - Bigbie going to Colorado for Eric Byrnes - was the only one the team made. The players were disappointed, particularly that the team didn't make a deal for Florida Marlins starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. But owner Peter Angelos balked.

"I think a big-time move would have helped us. At the All-Star break, we were right in the thick of things. Definitely, if we would have upgraded, it could have helped us," outfielder Jay Gibbons said.

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