Even with money to spend, Beattie and Flanagan faced the challenge of luring talent to a team that has scared off free agents with its recent history of losing and its reputation for disorganized management. "They were relentless in their efforts and made it clear that they were committed to building a winning team," says Fernando Cuza, who represents Tejada and Palmeiro. "That made a big difference." Tejada, coming off four straight 100-RBI seasons with the A's, says he was impressed by Beattie and Flanagan's pitch. "There was no doubt that these guys wanted to win," the shortstop says.
Lopez came aboard eight days after Tejada, and Palmeiro followed within a month. "Did Miguel's signing factor into my decision to sign?" says Palmeiro. "Definitely."
Palmeiro returns to Baltimore, where he played from 1994 through '98, after a five-year stint with the Texas Rangers, a strong-hitting, weak-pitching team with which Flanagan often hears the Orioles compared. Flanagan scoffs at that characterization—even though Ponson is the only starter to have won more than seven games last year—and says the Orioles will build around young pitchers such as lefthanders Adam Loewen and Matt Riley and righthander Kurt Ainsworth, all of whom have a good chance to open the season in the majors. "We've been able to spend on the every-day player and on defense," Flanagan says. "We have a surplus of outstanding young arms. Now our decisions with them have to be sound."
One of Beattie and Flanagan's first acts last winter was to overhaul a minor league system that was slapped with an F by Baseball America in 2002. They hired a new minor league director, Doc Rodgers, and changed managers at the top four affiliates. "There's definitely some pitching talent there," says a major league advance scout. "Give them a couple of years, and they could have a strong staff made up of their own guys."
The Orioles know that in the mighty AL East they are the equivalent of Dennis Kucinich, gazing up at the loaded Yankees and Red Sox, not to mention the upgraded Toronto Blue Jays. Nonetheless, for the first time in years, optimism abounds in Charm City. After six straight seasons of declining attendance, the team has seen a spike in ticket sales this winter; in the first week of February alone the Orioles sold 1,300 new season packages. The team's FanFest in downtown Baltimore on Feb. 7 attracted 15,000 people, the largest one-day crowd in the event's 20-year history.
Last Friday in Fort Lauderdale an Orioles icon, 73-year-old former manager Earl Weaver, stopped by the morning workout. He schmoozed with Mazzilli on the infield grass before retreating to the dugout to watch batting practice. "It's going to be exciting," Weaver said. "I can't wait to follow them."
He spoke for the Orioles faithful, so quiet for years, so ready to make some noise.