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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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The O's Woes
The last time the Orioles won a world championship, in 1983, they did it with a roster that included 11 players who were products of Baltimore's minor league system. Thus they were schooled in what was known as the Oriole Way. A look at this year's club shows how the quick-fix mentality of trading prospects and signing free agents, such as Albert Belle (left), has changed the makeup of the team.

STARTERS

HOW ACQUIRED

CF

Brady Anderson

Trade

SS

MikeBordick

Free agent

1B

Will Clark

Free agent

RF

Albert Belle

Free agent

LF

B.J. Surhoff

Free agent

DH

Harold Baines

Trade

3B

Cal Ripken Jr.

Signed 1978

2B

Delino DeShiclds

Free agent

C

Charles Johnson

Trade

PITCHERS

SP

Mike Mussina

Signed 1990

SP

Scott Erickson

Trade

SP

Juan Guzman

Trade

SP

Doug Linton

Free agent

SP

Sidney Ponson

Signed 1993

RP

Ricky Bones

Free agent

RP

Mike Fetters

Free agent

RP

Jesse Orosco

Free agent

RP

Arthur Lee Rhodes

Signed 1988

RP

Hearhcliff Slocumb

Free agent

RP

Mike Timlin

Free agent

BENCH

OF

RichAmaral

Free agent

IB/OF

Jeff Conine

Trade

3B/OF

Willis Otanez

Waiver pickup

C

Lenny Webster

Free agent

INF

Jeff Reboulct

Free agent

Paul Richards, the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles soon after their relocation from St. Louis in 1954, once wrote down the tenets of the organization's philosophy of how baseball should be taught and played. The unpublished manuscript came to be known as the Oriole Way, a sort of old testament to the fundamentals that would help the club produce, among other things, the game's richest farm system for about 20 years. In the Oriole Way, for instance, a relay from the outfield was a synchronized ballet among teammates so familiar with it and one another that they could run it flawlessly in the dark.

Cal Ripken Sr., a loyal player, coach, manager and scout in the organization for 36 years, added his own colloquies to Richards's doctrine until his retirement in 1992. Last winter, while in the final days of his fight with lung cancer, Ripken committed his accumulated wisdom to paper. When one of his good days would interrupt the run of bad ones, Ripken would press on with the writing of the book from his deathbed, telling his co-author, SI senior editor Larry Burke, "Let's get on with it."

It was that book, published posthumously as The Ripken Way, that Cal Ripken Jr. read on the Orioles' flight from New York to Toronto early last Friday morning. "It's amazing," the son said. "I thought I knew my father really well. But there are things in the book about him—what he felt about the game—that I never knew."

Having seen what's become of the Orioles, and even of Cal Ripken Jr., the very paragon of Baltimore baseball, you expect The Ripken Way to appear on faded papyrus. That's how far removed from its franchise roots this team seemed to be last week as Baltimore lost six of seven games to the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. Where once the farm system was the Orioles' lifeblood, now the team includes only four homegrown products: Ripken and pitchers Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes and Sidney Ponson. Also, 21 of the 25 players on the roster are 30 or older. This mad downward spiral, fueled by owner Peter Angelos's Rotisserie-style management, left the American League's second-most overhauled team (11 new players) also its worst at week's end, with a 3-9 record.

After spending a major-league-high $74 million on player salaries last year to win 79 games, the Orioles might be hard-pressed to get a win-per-million return on their $84 million investment this year. The Oriole Way? It's history. Ancient history.

Ripken remains the symbol of the franchise, only now it's because of his creaky performance in the field and at bat—where he has adopted a stance so unsightly it looks like a charades player doing an interpretation of a broken tripod. Last Friday in Toronto, Ripken was benched by his manager for the first time since May 29, 1982, a development that provoked an unusual reaction from the Iron Man: concession. "I have been pressing," he said, agreeing with the assessment of Ray Miller, who gave him the night off.

Ripken missed eight days of spring training to be with, and then help bury, his father. He suffered back spasms on Opening Day that kept him out of the next two games and limited his normally heavy workouts at bat and in the field. At week's end he was hitting .179 and had as many errors as hits (five) and as many sacrifice bunts as runs batted in (two). The 117 hits he needs for 3,000 and the 16 home runs for 400 are in doubt this year. Even more telling than his stats was the faraway look in his eyes as he folded his arms and leaned his back against his locker at Yankee Stadium one day last week.

"It's like I'm in a fog," he said. "Every once in a while I get this feeling, like a twang inside of me. Like at the viewing, I'd see somebody and it would trigger a memory and I'd get this feeling. It's hard to describe, but it's like something goes twang in my stomach.

"It happens on the field. I'll be focused, and maybe it's an umpire in the fifth inning who has a story to tell me, a memory of my dad. Then I feel it all over again. I've got to deal with that. I realize how many people my dad touched in his life. I'm always reminded of it, whether it's umpires, teammates or opposing players—guys have said things while I've been on base. People react to death in different ways. I don't have a lot of experience in dealing with this. It hasn't been easy."

Some of the many expatriates of the Angelos regime believe that Ripken's famous steely resolve has softened without the daily influences of his father and the Streak, the consecutive-games-played record he ended willingly at 2,632 last Sept. 20. It can't help that the team around him has been cobbled together with so many new parts and with seemingly so little planning. For instance, Angelos and new general manager Frank Wren—the third Orioles G.M. in 36 months—needed only five days in December to acquire half of their every-day starting players. They traded for catcher Charles Johnson and signed three free agents: first baseman Will Clark, second baseman Delino DeShields and rightfielder Albert Belle.

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