Another O's off season grows gap with Ravens

June 29, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

It's almost July, time for Baltimore's favorite summer pastime: jumping off the Orioles' sinking ship and climbing into the Ravens' lifeboats.

In other words: Orioles, done. Ravens, camp opens in 32 days.

It's a tradition around here dating to at least the Super Bowl days, in the middle of the Orioles' current streak of losing seasons. But rarely have simultaneous events involving both teams served as such an impetus.

At almost the exact hour Tuesday that Miguel Tejada was declining interview requests on the reports that he was on the trading block, the Ravens were announcing that Ed Reed had agreed to a six-year contract extension.

One team wrestles with the idea of trading its best player, the other team celebrates the long-term investment in its best player.

That, in a nutshell, is why the fans in this town can so easily bail on the Orioles in midseason and invest their hopes in the Ravens two months before the first real game.

And by the way, it hasn't worked the other way yet. As disappointing as the Ravens have been the past two seasons, very few have been heard in mid-December sighing, "Well, two months until pitchers and catchers." Not for these pitchers and catchers they don't.

Besides, the best, most important and most influential pitcher in Baltimore this year is Steve McNair. At least he is unless the Orioles get an ace in return for their most valuable player. If they trade him. Which they say they won't. Unless a package overwhelms them.

The fact that this is even a possibility, and has been a topic of discussion since last winter, tells you all you need to know about how low the Orioles have sunk. They and Tejada are 2 1/2 years into a six-year, $72 million contract - and they're still in fourth place, closer to last than to third, while Tejada, one of baseball's most infectiously optimistic players during his years in Oakland, seems miserable.

It never should have gotten to this. If the Orioles are incapable of building a winner around a natural leader like Tejada, if they can't make the most of the money they laid out for an elite player, then they can't ever do it. To waste that player and that opportunity is a crime.

If and when the Orioles pull the trigger, they should headline the announcement, "We Blew It." They should go out to the right-field pavilion and raise white flags on all the poles.

As bad as that is, it looks even worse compared with how the Ravens have handled their business in an offseason that possibly has been as contentious as the Orioles' was. The Ravens had a seemingly unhappy team leader, too. Maybe Ray Lewis is happier now, maybe not. But the team has sure left the impression that he has lots of reasons to smile.

Let's recap: We have two teams that have both missed the playoffs in the past two seasons. One team fails to maximize the time a former league Most Valuable Player has spent with it and now has to endure a month of trade speculation about him. The other adds a former league MVP, locks up a key player long-term and, it appears, satisfies the face of the franchise.

Seriously, which team would you put your heart, soul and money behind? And which would you not?

Know how smooth things are going up in Owings Mills? Last month, a day that might have been tense and perilous - Lewis breaking his offseason isolation to answer questions about whether he wanted to remain a Raven - turned glorious within hours of Lewis walking away from the microphones, when the McNair deal was completed.

Know how rocky things are down at Oriole Park? In the opener of yesterday's day-night doubleheader with the Phillies, a 7-4 win, Tejada had a great game: 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI single, and he hit it hard two other times up. He began Game 2 hitting .313 with 16 homers and 55 RBIs. But between games, he stayed away from anyone with a microphone or pad, again.

He never has opened up about why his mood darkened - in fact, he hasn't even acknowledged that it has. All that's clear is that it started around this time last year, and it has snowballed since.

As it has, somehow he has become the problem. So many fingers can be pointed at culprits for yet another letdown of a season - including the fact that Tejada is on his second manager and second general manager already. Heck, the bullpen managed to make Erik Bedard sweat the 7-0 lead he'd left them, and Chris Ray actually ended up getting a save.

But the finger is being pointed instead at Tejada.

The Orioles swear he isn't unhappy, sullen, detached, or ready to get out. But if he's not ... why not? Wouldn't you be?

Actually, you are. You're tired of this team going through this every year, so Tejada is entitled as well.

Tejada isn't talking much these days. But don't be surprised if the next thing he says on the record is, "How do ya think McNair will do?"

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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