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Baltimore Orioles

Scouting Report    By the Numbers | Players To Watch | Projected Roster

  BBORIOLES.jpg Ace Mussina leads an aging team that is loaded with free-agents-to-be and is desperate for one more shot at glory.    (Al Tielemans)
Contrary to rumors floating around the shuffleboard circuit, the Orioles did not move their Fort Lauderdale spring training camp down I-95 to Century Village and hire Jack LaLanne as strength and conditioning coach. Still, they are the oldest team in baseball, a 162-episode version of thirtysomething. On most nights second baseman Roberto Alomar, 30, will be the youngest position player in a lineup with an average age of 34. This is the team crafted by owner Peter Angelos, whose money and impatience has brought the Baltimore-Washington area a flashback to Redskins coach George Allen and his Over the Hill Gang. The future is now for the Orioles, whose weak farm system has developed only one every-day starter in the last five years.

What Baltimore, which outdrew every other team except Colorado last season, has working in its favor is Oriole Park at Camden Yards—the single biggest influence on baseball in the '90s. Not only did it strike a retro architectural note that echoes throughout a stadium building boom, but it also established the gold standard of revenue sources: a publicly funded, luxury-suite-packed hitters' park with a sweetheart lease. So successful is Camden Yards that it has become an attraction for players as well as fans.

"The first thing you notice is how close the fans are," says former Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter, who, after listening to offers from Anaheim and Minnesota, signed within 24 hours of hearing from the Orioles. "Sellout crowds every night, a lot of noise—you know you'll always be juiced to play in that atmosphere. It makes a difference. Plus, it's 364 feet to left centerfield."

In addition to Carter, 38, the Orioles added reliever Norm Charlton, 35, shortstop Ozzie Guillen, 34, and likely fifth starter Doug Drabek, 35, and brought back DH Harold Baines, 39, and centerfielder Brady Anderson, 34, whose five-year, $31 million contract pays him past his 38th birthday. "The fan support I received was unbelievable," says Anderson, who also fielded offers from Atlanta and Cleveland. "If you go somewhere else, you have to start all over building a relationship with your teammates and the fans. I've got so much of my career invested in Baltimore. I didn't want to leave."

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Angelos has taken advantage of the desire of Anderson and righthanded ace Mike Mussina to remain in Baltimore by signing them to contracts that are below market value. However, Angelos will not have that luxury in negotiations with some of his other stars, who have previously demonstrated a willingness to change teams. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, 33, due for free agency again after the season, has vowed not to "do a Brady." Alomar also has free agency looming.

Oh, well. Angelos can always turn up some more used parts—anything to avoid depending on a rookie. (No every-day Baltimore player has earned a first-place vote for Rookie of the Year since Cal Ripken Jr. won the award in 1982.) Drabek, for instance, probably gets a spot in the rotation despite a 5.74 ERA last year. "We looked at him," says one American League general manager, "but what scared us is that his home runs went way up and his strikeouts went way down—and now he'll be pitching in that small park."

Drabek, though, did have his best seasons in Pittsburgh with Ray Miller, now the Baltimore manager, as his pitching coach. Says Miller, who finds his team's high mileage more comfort than concern, "I believe man for man we're as good as anybody. We're a very good team that could be great."

No one better represents the ball club's identity than Ripken, who turns 38 in August. Ripken played most of the second half of last season with a herniated disk that pressed on a nerve, often causing his left leg to go numb. "You could have stuck a pin in my leg and I would not have felt it," says Ripken. He sought information over the winter about the possibility of surgery, even figuring out a "drop-dead date" on which he could undergo a procedure and still be in the Opening Day lineup. Ultimately, Ripken decided to treat the injury with a combination of rest and exercise.

"I feel great," says the Iron Man. Now that's old news.

—by Tom Verducci

Scouting Report | By the Numbers | Players To Watch | Projected Roster



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