The Orioles came back from Florida with a roster full of pleasant memories, even if the logistical aspects of spring training left something to be desired. The club that could do no right in 1991 could do little wrong during the Grapefruit League season, which only added to the anticipation of tomorrow's Opening Day festivities at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The outlook for 1992 couldn't be brighter -- not without some personnel changes anyway. The Orioles seem ready to start the long climb back up the standings. Where they stop will depend on how well they build on the positive developments of the past six weeks.
In a sense, they were in the eye of the storm. Controversies raged in the camps all around them, but all was quiet on the Orioles front, where the John Oates system ran smoothly, the club performed impressively and no arrests were necessary.
Just a matter of hours remain before we begin to find out whether it was all an illusion, or an indication that happy days are here again. What better time for a few Florida flashbacks, with a couple of predictions and a little fiction thrown in for good measure:
Home is where the Greyhound is: The Orioles were able to avoid another 30-day exhibition road trip, thanks to the hospitality of the St. Louis Cardinals and the city of St. Petersburg, but their latest spring-training home had its drawbacks. For one thing, the home clubhouse at Al Lang Stadium was already taken, so the Orioles had to dress a couple of miles away at the Huggins-Stengel Complex and bus to their home games in uniform.
Plans to build a permanent spring training home remain on hold, so the arrangement with Al Lang Stadium probably will remain in effect through next spring. In the meantime, the Orioles are the only team in baseball that opens spring workouts at one facility (Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota), practices and dresses for exhibition games at another, and plays at a third.
The Orioles still hope to persuade some unsuspecting Florida city to build them an all-purpose complex, but the spring training building boom appears to be over. Right now, they might be lucky to get a new clubhouse and the Partridge Family bus.
Dressed for success: The Chicago White Sox shook off the loss of designated hitter Bo Jackson and continued to build the most imposing offensive lineup in baseball. They acquired 1987 American League MVP George Bell to take Bo's place in a lineup that includes Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Carlton Fisk, Ozzie Guillen, Tim Raines and recently acquired Steve Sax.
But are they the best team in the American League? Not yet. The starting rotation includes only one pitcher, Jack McDowell, who was a consistent winner last year, and the bullpen is weaker for the loss of left-hander Ken Patterson, who went to the Cubs in the Bell trade.
Big deals: The Roland Hemond trade watch remains in effect, though spring trade speculation was very light this year. The Orioles did send Francisco de la Rosa and a player to be named to the New York Yankees a few weeks ago for reliever Alan Mills, but it was hardly a major transaction. The club seemed eager to get rid of de la Rosa, who turned a one-day call-up last year into a month in the training room at major-league salary. He wasn't exactly a classic physical specimen to begin with. The guy makes Kirby Puckett look like a decathlete. Mills, however, turned out to be a pleasant surprise, so cut the GM some slack.
That's why they're veterans: Right-hander Rick Sutcliffe found a sympathetic ear in left-hander Mike Flanagan after he had a tough sixth inning in his final performance of the Grapefruit League season on Wednesday.
Sutcliffe: "Johnny had to take me out. The outfielders were getting tired."
Flanagan: "Yeah, you know you're having a bad day when the fifth inning rolls around and they drag the warning track."
Preseason pick: Chicago's Thomas is a lock to win the AL MVP award. No offense to the defending champ, but Thomas is on the right team at the right time to have a monster year. He's also the most talented player in baseball, which helps.
Tourist tax: Florida has found one way to address its budget problems. Last weekend in Miami, there were five state troopers stationed on the highway leading away from Miami International Airport, picking off rental cars at a furious rate. With the money they raised on my poor driving habits alone, the area should be able to build the Orioles a new spring training facility.
Preseason pick II: The AL Cy Young Award probably will go to Roger Clemens, as it does every year, but look for AL newcomer John Smiley to give him a run. Smiley won 20 in the National League and he'll have the element of surprise going for him the first time around the league.
Preseason pan: Minnesota Twins right-hander Scott Erickson won 20 last year and comes into 1992 burdened with some tTC tremendous expectations. His arm may not be up to meeting them. Roto-geeks (and you know who you are) should back off and spend the draft money you save on Juan Guzman.
From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to talk show host and New York Mets fan David Letterman, here's my Top 10 list of stadium stories that we decided not to run:
10. Beer plumbing: Is it really necessary, or just another way to lure Ted Kennedy to the ballpark?
9. Babe Ruth, contacted from beyond the grave to rate new park.
8. Pigeon droppings: Why club level seating costs so much and is worth every penny.
7. The tarp -- a Q&A.;
6. The new infield grass: What happens when you smoke it?
5. Stadium gridlock: Five fun things to do do when the seventh inning rolls around and you're still on Route 295.
4. In the dirt -- a geologist evaluates the infield.
3. Stadium critters (Oops, we did run that one.)
2. Light rail: Tastes great? Less Filling?
1. The new stadium: If it were a tree, what kind of tree would it be?
Trivia quiz: Speaking of stadium firsts, what stadium's first home run was hit by Hall of Famer Willie Mays?
Out on a limb: For some unexplained reason, I have this uncontrollable urge to pick the St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League East. The rest of my picks are a little more conventional -- the Dodgers in the NL West, the Blue Jays in the AL East and the Athletics in the AL West. Can't pick the White Sox, not with that pitching staff.
Trivia answer: If you said Candlestick Park, you owe Leon Wagner an apology. He hit the first homer at The Stick. Mays was the first to christen Anaheim Stadium, hitting the first Big A homer on April 11, 1966 in an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and California Angels.