O's need rewrite of tired, old script

October 12, 2007|By RICK MAESE

The scene could be stripped from a low-budget horror flick. In a nondescript hotel conference room, amid dry pastries and porcelain mugs filled with tepid coffee, Orioles coaches, scouts and executives sit around a table.

"What must we do to win next year?" someone asks.

"I have a list of available free agents," someone else says.

"We have a couple of holes to fill. Any veterans available?"

"Of course!"

"Great. Now let's go see a movie. Meeting adjourned."

The Orioles' organizational meetings concluded yesterday in Sarasota, Fla., and for the sake of Baltimore's collective sanity, let's hope the blueprint that guided the club the past 10 offseasons has been permanently packed away. Preferably deep below the Earth's surface where it might lead to the fall of once-great worm colonies but will never again sully the Orioles organization.

Oh, what we'd do for an offseason of truth. Of honest and frank evaluation. Of smart and progressive planning. It's time for the Orioles to stop talking about how they can win next year and to start formulating an earnest long-term plan for reconstruction.

In recent years, the Orioles invested in their future by essentially blowing money on blindfolds to shield them from the growing cracks in the foundation. They need to keep spending, but this time, all of that cash that formerly went to Albert Belle or Rafael Palmeiro or Danys Baez needs to be redirected to scouting and player development. The Orioles trail the rest of baseball in these areas, and the required upgrades will cost tens of millions of dollars.

For the sake of comparison, let's look at the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that has finished in last place in all but one year of its dismal existence. While baseball was cracking jokes at the Devil Rays' expense (and the Orioles were locking up fourth place by spending money on Javy Lopez and Aubrey Huff), the Devil Rays weren't fooling themselves with fantasies of imminent contention.

Today, they're an organization pointed the opposite direction of the Orioles. They opened a baseball academy in Venezuela. They share another academy in the Dominican Republic with the Dodgers and operate yet another in Colombia. Plus, last offseason, they outbid the Red Sox, the Indians and the Padres for Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura.

And the Orioles? Hesitant to go to Venezuela. Won't even drink Colombian coffee. Couldn't spot the Pacific Rim on a map and refuse to fully commit to the Dominican Republic. As an organization, they're about as international as a pancake chain in suburbia.

By now, 29 teams have facilities in the Dominican Republic, and the Orioles' is among the worst. Owner Peter Angelos has long dreamed of establishing a real academy there. But while he's been talking, every other team has been building. If you're a 16-year-old prospect, are you more likely to sign with a team that is offering real bonus money and first-class facilities or the one with a couple of dilapidated diamonds and a rundown field house?

Sure, they should've used Melvin Mora's extension money to sign a dozen Venezuelan prospects. And they should've used Jay Gibbons' cash to hire two dozen new scouts. That money has been lost, though. This offseason, the Orioles need to worry less about a competitive payroll and divert money into areas that will show dividends down the road.

The game's economics have evolved, and though players such as Alex Rodriguez are still going to earn the equivalent of a small country's gross national product, even the Yankees and Red Sox will rely more on their farms for future championship runs.

While the Orioles dropped $93 million on this year's payroll, they're now sitting at home while smarter and more frugal teams are playing baseball in October. The Diamondbacks have a payroll of $52 million, the Rockies $54 million and the Indians $62 million. These teams spent recent offseasons looking ahead while the Orioles woke up every winter like a character in Groundhog Day.

Then, when spring rolled around, they put makeup on a pig and tried to tell us they've scored a date with Paris Hilton. Sure, it's embarrassing, but when you turn around and charge your fans to watch, it's also fraudulent. But it's our world. Athletes and lawyers are the only ones who can consistently lose and still amass great wealth.

Andy MacPhail must end the cycle, and the only way to do that is to start from scratch.

If you need any proof the Orioles must slash, burn and start anew, consider the current 40-man roster. If the 2008 Opening Day were tomorrow, the Orioles would field just one everyday player under the age of 30, Nick Markakis. They're no closer to turning a corner than they were a year ago, or five years ago, or a decade ago.

Sure, Rome was rebuilt quicker than the Oriole Way, but fret not - it's never too late. All optimism hinges on what we hear in the coming weeks and months, and, for Orioles fans, keep your ears perked for talk of scouting and development and, hopefully, money devoted to those areas.

And if anyone even mentions chasing down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox next year, run. It`s yet another scene from yet another horror flick. And like most sequels, the story line, the theme and most of the characters have grown pretty stale. We`re ready for something new.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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