Turnaround unlikely, Orioles head in wrong direction

June 30, 2006|By RICK MAESE

At least they're not teasing you this time.

The Orioles are hitting the season's midpoint - Game No. 81 is tonight - and unlike one year ago, they've built no false illusions this time. They're not tricking you, leading you on or giving you a single reason to believe anything other than the obvious: This doesn't look like a good team, and it's showing few signs of hope.

The past two weeks have been good to the Orioles, but we can't be fooled by a few wins. The second half of the season - and beyond - looks grim. Isn't it amazing how feelings can be so different in a relatively short period of time? One year ago, the Orioles were barely a week removed from first place, trailing the division front-runner by just two games.

And now? The Orioles went cliff diving with an anchor and still haven't found the bottom. You hoped their tribulations ended when they severed ties with Rafael Palmeiro. You hoped it ended when they mixed up the hands in charge of pulling the strings. You hoped it ended when they started investing in their youth, these buds that are supposed to blossom any minute now.

But the slide isn't over, and it's no longer fair to accuse the Orioles of lacking in direction. By now it's very clear where they're headed. You want to remain positive, but regardless of how well they've looked in recent games, there's just no uptick in sight.

There have certainly been some good moves - signing key veterans to long-term deals, picking up Kris Benson, Corey Patterson and Ramon Hernandez in the offseason - but it hasn't consistently translated into wins.

Let's peek around the corner a bit and face a new reality: The Orioles are in serious danger of finishing in the American League East basement for the first time since 1988.

The Orioles, owners of the American League's second-worst road record, have seven more road dates than home dates during the second half of the season; the Devil Rays have 10 more games at home than they do on the road.

Of course, it's not unreasonable to think that the Orioles' on-field performance will improve. After all, the offense isn't bad, Erik Bedard looks great, Benson is the most consistent starter and Daniel Cabrera can tease you more than a prom date.

But there's a red herring hanging on the horizon. There are those blacked-out names on Jason Grimsley's federal affidavit that connect fellow big leaguers with drug use. The safe guess is that those names will be revealed before the season ends. Many in the Orioles' organization fear that one or more players on the roster will be implicated, and the fallout could be devastating. We could be bracing for a tailspin very similar to last season's.

And what about down the road? Entering this season, few had serious visions of contending. This year was supposed to bridge the gap between futility and success; the Orioles were simply preheating the oven for 2007 and beyond.

The idea that the team's farm system has been rebuilt, though, is looking more and more like a myth. The Orioles have been forced to cling to more than one player this season who has been better suited for the waiver wire. There isn't talent ready to step up. And the prospects who are waiting in the wings - whether it be Nick Markakis, Adam Loewen, Nolan Reimold or Hayden Penn - can't be filed into the can't-miss category just yet, which casts continued doubt over the long-term.

In truth, the biggest story of the season might have already been told - and it has nothing to do with Miguel Tejada's happiness, Melvin Mora's contract or Grimsley's loose lips. In fact, the most important thing I've heard all year has been the terse dialogue between owner Peter Angelos and the Orioles' fans.

The Orioles are drawing 6,000 fewer fans than this point last season - a staggering difference. The woeful Marlins are the only team to experience a bigger drop (though it's worth noting that competitively, Florida is just one season removed from a fire sale and has already steered itself back on course).

The lack of interest in ballgames should be a pointed message to the Orioles. You would think they'd be figuring out that their fan base has run out of patience and isn't willing to tolerate the continued mismanagement of a civic institution.

But there is still no sense of urgency and still no dramatic changes on the horizon.

You get the feeling that team management sincerely believes that the Orioles are turning the corner. They don't seem to realize that they're hanging party balloons at a funeral right now. Looking ahead at the final three months of the season, it's time the Orioles started to get worried. There is no end in sight to this team's struggles.

When you take a tiny step back, you've witnessed exciting and hopeful baseball these past two weeks. Take just one more step back and you've seen a team struggle through the first half of a season. And back up just one more step and you've seen a franchise fallen to an embarrassing low point.

With a stable of veterans and an injection of youth, this year's Orioles were supposed to be like a sneak preview of the future. Midway through the season, everyone at Camden Yards had better hope that that's not the case.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.