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Losing Their Way
Tom Verducci
April 26, 1999
Once famous for a philosophy and a farm system that produced winners, the Orioles now feature quick fixes, bad chemistry and the American League's worst record
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April 26, 1999

Losing Their Way

Once famous for a philosophy and a farm system that produced winners, the Orioles now feature quick fixes, bad chemistry and the American League's worst record

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"There's a higher level of execution when you have familiarity with the players around you," Ripken said. "You hear it with a shortstop-second base combination, but it relates to all aspects of the game."

During a 1-5 stretch beginning on April 11, the Orioles sabotaged themselves with a botched rundown between third and home; a two-out, two-strike wild pitch that broke an eighth-inning tie; a dropped toss from a first baseman to a pitcher not expecting a throw while covering first base; a passed ball caused when the pitcher misread a sign from the catcher; and another wild pitch that made possible a game-breaking two-run single.

"It especially hurts because we're playing teams in our division," says Mussina, who started all three games that Baltimore had won. "Toronto is better than last year. Tampa Bay should score 50 to 100 more runs just by adding [Jose] Canseco. We haven't seen Boston yet, but if the Red Sox keep pitching like they have been, they're going to be good. We're just not playing well. The thing is, there is no question that we have better pitching than we're showing."

Each defeat is preceded and followed by a cool calm in the Baltimore clubhouse, with only the frequent chirping and buzzing of cell phones and pagers and the clacking of cards in cribbage games interrupting the placidity. Emotions such as anger and frustration are not evident on this veteran team; the players know that the long season (not to mention 18 straight games, starting this week, against teams that had losing records last year) is their ally. Of course, this particular veteran team is so aged it ought to travel not in a team bus but in a Crown Victoria doing 50 mph in the left-hand lane with its turn signal perpetually on.

"That's bulls—-," snaps Angelos about his reputation for disregarding younger players, though the evidence doesn't support the accomplished attorney. The most significant change of the Angelos era occurred in July 1996, when general manager Pat Gillick told Angelos he had two deals in place that would make the underachieving Orioles younger and more athletic: He could, in essence, trade outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who was eligible for free agency at the end of the season, to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, and send lefthander David Wells, another potential free agent, to the Seattle Mariners for catcher Chris Widger and two minor league prospects. Gillick argued that the Orioles needed to "change the age of the club" and strive for a better mix of veterans and young players.

Angelos killed both deals. He insisted that the frequent sellout crowds at Camden Yards required him to put forth the best possible team, age be damned. The Orioles rallied to win the American League wild card and beat Cleveland in the Division Series. Angelos was vindicated and emboldened. Gillick's appetite for the job was never the same. Says another former Orioles insider, "The problem is, they have so many selfish, egotistical people in upper management who think they know more about baseball than Branch Rickey."

Angelos's six years of ownership have been distinguished not only by the failure to stop the franchise's longest run without a World Series appearance (15 years and counting) but also by a brain drain. He has lost such respected baseball minds as Gillick, Kevin Malone, Doug Melvin, Johnny Oates and Davey Johnson. Those departures seem all the more important because of the key baseball people he has in place for the time being: Wren, who has yet to distinguish himself in his first major league G.M. job, and Miller, who is failing for the second time as a manager.

At week's end Miller's career record, including a brief stint with the Minnesota Twins in the mid-'80s, was 191-222. His strength is thought to be his knowledge of pitching, gleaned from 18 years as a highly successful pitching coach, eight of them with the Orioles. But Baltimore's greatest weakness this season has been on the mound. Other than Mussina (2-0, 2.45 ERA), the starting pitchers were 0-6 with an 8.24 ERA through Sunday, while throwing only 43⅔ innings in nine games. Righthander Scott Erickson (0-2), a sinkerball pitcher who throws best with regular work, made both of his starts on five days of rest instead of the usual four—in part because Miller started him in an exhibition game in Cuba before the season opener. "Scotty's ticked off because the game in Cuba threw him off," says one Oriole. "What's more important? Winning an exhibition game or making sure you're ready to start the season? Their priorities were wrong."

Still, it's too early to declare the Orioles a lost cause. Belle has been productive in the early going (three homers, 12 RBIs), as was Clark until he broke his left thumb fielding a ground ball on Sunday. (He's expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list.) And the Orioles do have a few intriguing prospects who are close to being ready for the majors, such as first baseman Calvin Pickering, third baseman Ryan Minor and infielders Jesse Garcia and Jerry Hairston. (Their best prospects, lefthander Matt Riley and catcher Jayson Werth, are only 19.) "My baseball people advised me they would be better off with a year in Triple A before they come to the major leagues," Angelos says. "There's no rush."

Angelos insists that he is willing to pay whatever it takes to field a competitive ball club. "All of the money my team earns is spent on the field," he says. So while the St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, were happy to let DeShields leave, Angelos gave the lifetime .270 hitter $12.5 million over three years. Reserves Rich Amaral, 37, and Jeff Reboulet, 35, have multiyear contracts that pay them through next season, and reliever Jesse Orosco, 42, has a contract that guarantees he'll be paid through the year 2000.

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