In 1989 the Orioles were perhaps the most admired team in baseball -- not just in Baltimore, but other major-league cities as well. Fans loved their gritty style of play. Rival clubs envied their rags-to-riches success story.
One year later everything has changed. The Orioles have virtually the same players, but are far out of contention. Do they stay the course and continue to rebuild with younger players? Or they shift direction and acquire veterans either through free agency or trades?
Club president Larry Lucchino gave preliminary answers to those questions in an interview conducted during the last two days at Memorial Stadium. His comments offer the first indication of the direction the Orioles might pursue this winter.
The text of the interview:
Question: How disappointed are you by what has happened this season?
Answer: Like a lot of Orioles fans, we had hoped for more success than we enjoyed this year. But, the important thing is to control your expectations, be realistic about your rate of development. We have seen a lot of positive things.
This is a team that was in contention well into August. You like to be in contention through September, but there are a lot of positive things that are coming out of this year, in terms of the performance of some young players, strong-armed pitchers.
And that's without even going into the success of the minor-league operation, which is the key to any long-term successful rebuilding of the franchise. You've got to do that through talent in the system. We think we have that.
Q: Is it now time to start making decisions on some of the younger players?
A: We have one of the world's most creative and energetic general managers. Roland [Hemond] will look at all trade possibilities. That includes trading young, talented players for players that we think are key elements. Sometimes you've got to trade talent to get talent. We understand that . . . [But] we're not in this for short-term fixes. We're in it for long-term strength, foundation, building.
Q: [Manager] Frank Robinson has refused to use injuries as an excuse. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I think that's part of the baseball mentality, and I admire it. The truth is, we've had a series of major injuries this year. If you look back to last year, you can probably find one major injury to Mickey Tettleton.
But the fact is, it is undeniable that great teams have great depth, but good teams may not have much depth. Injuries can impact a good team much more devastatingly than they can impact a great team.
Q: Last week Frank Robinson said he thought the Orioles would pursue free agents. Has there been an adjustment in your thinking on this?
A: You say an adjustment. That presumes something that is not quite accurate. We've said we will operate on all cylinders.
That means we will buttress the scouting and player development part of this organization, spend time, money and effort on that -- and we have. It also means we will work on all fronts with Roland's direction on trades. And it also means we will consider where appropriate, when appropriate, if appropriate, some kind of investigation of free agents.
You can not close off any avenues. It's too competitive a business to do so. But we're going to run it with some kind of prudence and independence too. We're not going to be stampeded into anything short-term.
Q: Has there been much discussion at the highest levels -- meaning you, [club owner] Eli [Jacobs], Roland -- about free agents, just the concept of going after them?
A: We've talked certainly about our philosophy of winning, about how best to do that long-term. Yes, we've talked about free agents, scouting, player development, all the elements of a winning combination.
Q: Is he [Jacobs] willing to pursue free agents?
A: No one can answer questions in the abstract like that. Yes, if the appropriate players come up, the appropriate transactions that we think will help this team in the long-term . . . we're not shutting down any alternatives.
Q: You've always said you have a "healthy skepticism" about free agents.
A: I still do. To the extent it's part of a mix, that's one thing. Using it as a tool where appropriate is one thing. But we're not going to deviate from our essential plan, which is to rebuild the Orioles and get them back to the success they had, the way
they had it. And they had it through scouting, player development and talent in the farm system.
That was a time-tested formula for Orioles success. It was part of the Orioles' tradition. You remember back in '88, after the [0-21] streak, I said, 'It's back to the future.' We meant that. The Orioles, with some degree of justification, have demonstrated a healthy skepticism toward free agency. My attitude simply reflects the history and data we've had.
Q: There is a perception among some that the organization has become cheap under the new ownership. Is that fair? How do you change the perception?
A: First I question whether it is a perception, and I ask on what it is based. In some degree it's an issue that's grown on the minds of some media as a result of the Phil Bradley trade perhaps. But that's a radical misinterpretation of the Phil Bradley trade, which was made for baseball reasons No. 1, baseball reasons No. 2 and baseball reasons No. 3.
It is undeniable that we've run the club with some sense of cost control. That's a prudent and sensible way to run any business. But there is no validity to the question that we do not have a very real commitment to winning.
What do you base it on? We have a philosophy. We've had it for a while now. We've been operating under it, devoting our time, money and attention in large part to player development. We have done that, I submit, with a substantial degree of success. We will invest even more time and money on it in the future.
Our players -- the ones we have -- are among the best-paid players in baseball. Gregg Olson is the highest-paid pitcher in his service category. Bob Milacki is fourth or fifth, [Craig] Worthington is among the highest in his service category. Our players came away satisfied with the willingness of the club to pay very good salaries.
The single most important ingredient in this issue is major-league service. We were fortunate to have had on Opening Day the youngest team in baseball in terms of major-league service. That was a major determinant in what our payroll is. We know inevitably as players get older they are more highly compensated.
Q: Does it bother you that some people perceive the Mickey Tettleton situation as a test of the club's willingness to spend money? (Tettleton is eligible for free agency at the end of the season.)
A: That's unfair to Mickey and it's unfair to us. Every player stands and falls on his own merits. It's a test of the club's relationship and determination with respect to one player, and one player only. There's not some larger meaning in it. That would be a mistake to conclude that.
Q: What exactly is the club's obligation to its fans?
A: To be well aware of the role the club plays in the city, state and community it's a part of, and to be committed to running a sound, successful, winning franchise. The winning, of course, is the question. But our obligation is to work hard to make us a successful, stable long-term part of this community.
Q: Has the goal from the start been to field a bona fide contender by 1992, the year the new stadium opens?
A: This team was competitive through most of 1990, and it was competitive through all of 1989. I don't know why you would conclude it might not be competitive in 1991. Certainly it has always been our hope, our plan and our dream that this will be a solid franchise, competitive throughout the '90s.