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O's start: April's fool or was it real thing? First 4 weeks are puzzling at best

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles played like April fools just long enough to make everyone wonder. Is it possible they are not the division contenders everyone assumed they would be?

It is a difficult question made more difficult by the schizophrenic nature of baseball. One day, the Orioles are 5-13 and wondering if the next team meeting is going to require sleeping bags. Three days later, they are in the midst of a three-game winning streak that has revived the despairing public.

Nevertheless, the team that was supposed to challenge the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East title needed a three-game losing streak from the Cleveland Indians to get out of the cellar. The season may not be more than four weeks old, but the Orioles have cut the other division hopefuls a lot of slack.

On April 26, they were 7 1/2 games out of first place, farther back than the team had been at any point in the 1992 season. It was on that night that manager Johnny Oates called a post-game team meeting that didn't let out for nearly two hours, but it was not until the team returned to Camden Yards two days later that things took an upward turn.

If the Orioles have begun to play to their potential, it is only after the players -- and the fans -- had three weeks to wonder if the team was as good as advertised.

"I don't think it would be realistic to say that doesn't runthrough your mind," said pitcher Mike Mussina. "But if you do think that, you've got to go out and prove to yourself and everybody else that you're wrong."

Oates insists that such a thought has never entered his mind. He concedes that the rocky start has been a major source of frustration and disappointment, but says he has remained confident in the ultimate emergence of the Orioles as a contending club.

"I've never doubted it for a second," he said. "I know we're not a 7-13 club. Somewhere over the course of a 162-game season, I would be willing to bet that every team in baseball will go through a 7-13 streak.

"I can't speak for the players. I don't know what their mental approach is. But I think if you are at this level, you should have confidence in your ability. We have basically the same club that we had last year."

There have been changes, all intended to take the team to a

higher level than it achieved in 1992. The Orioles were one of the surprise teams, running neck-and-neck with the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays for most of the season, but they did not have enough offensive punch to sustain their drive in September.

Hemond preaches calm

The Orioles acquired veteran designated hitter Harold Baines and signed free-agent second baseman Harold Reynolds to solidify the offensive lineup, but ranked among the lowest scoring teams in the American League in April. If that was cause for panic, general manager Roland Hemond continued to preach calm.

"I still feel we have a very talented club," Hemond said. "You don't on April 29 say you're not very good because things aren't going well. I've been in other situations like this. The '83 White Sox club went 16-24 in the first 40 games, and we [the White Sox] got going and won 99 games. The [World Series champion] Baltimore club that year had two seven-game losing streaks. That's all part of baseball."

Hemond has to hope that history can repeat. He presided over several personnel changes that have altered the chemistry of the team, leaving himself open to criticism if the season goes sour.

The Orioles released easy-going first baseman Randy Milligan and replaced fiery second baseman Bill Ripken and hard-nosed Joe Orsulak, all fan favorites whose contribution to the collective personality of the 1992 team was significant. The club acquired Baines and Reynolds, who are just beginning to assert themselves at the plate.

None of this is lost on Hemond, but he is not second-guessing himself.

"You can't look at it that way," he said. "When you make moves, you evaluate them at the time you make them. Yes, we've got new players, so there is going to be an adjustment period. That's what the long season is all about. That's what makes it the challenge that it is.

"Some people might have said, 'Where was the chemistry in September last year, when we didn't do anything?' You have to be supportive and positive even though sometimes it doesn't look good."

MacPhail's view

Still, it is a legitimate question: Did the organization and a host of preseason prognosticators overestimate the potential of the team? One prominent outside observer doesn't think so.

"We thought they were a good club, and we still think they are," said Minnesota Twins general manager Andy MacPhail, who knows first-hand that a slow start does not necessarily mean a blown season. The Twins started 2-9 in 1991 and came back to win the World Series.

"It's a marathon, and you can't win a marathon in the first mile of the race. I don't think anybody in that division looks unassailable. Detroit whaled on us, but that's the same crew we've been beating for the past three years."

Timing is everything. The Orioles got off to a 1-6 start, which established them as a team in crisis. They compounded that perception by losing repeatedly on obvious fundamental mistakes. It was natural for fans to lose confidence in the team's ability to contend.

"There are two times during the season when it's particularly bad to not play well," assistant GM Frank Robinson said, "the beginning and the end. It's hard for people to understand that it's a long, long, long season."

Robinson played a role in the construction of this club. He was the manager when the nucleus of the team was being formed. He was in the front office when the fine tuning was done this winter. He isn't having any second thoughts about the makeup of the team.

"I like the moves we made," he said. "Baines? That was a gamble. It was a matter of whether his knees hold up, but we knew that going in. Reynolds? I think he will right himself. Fernando Valenzuela? That's a gamble that still has a chance. And [Sherman] Obando? I'd still draft him again."

Positive on Oates

Club officials also remain positive about Oates, dispelling any notion that his job might depend on how quickly the Orioles can recover from their discouraging start. Oates was praised last year, and he has worked hard to turn the 1993 team around.

Hemond has been around long enough to watch teams recover from bad starts and collapse after good ones. He does not seem particularly worried.

"When you're down 7 1/2 games in August, you're still in the race," he said, "so it stands to reason that you're still in the race if you're down 7 1/2 games in April. Sure, you want to get ahead and you'd like to play better. But the reason baseball is such a tremendous celebration when you win it is because most winning teams have had to overcome some kind of adversity. That's why it's such a great game, because it's a constant challenge."

The Orioles have met that challenge after getting off slowly in the past. The question is whether this team is good enough to make the climb to the top of the standings.

"In Baltimore, there have been a lot of slow starts," Hemond said. "If people can't believe here, they can't believe anywhere."

True enough, the 1982 Orioles struggled for the first two months of the season and were playing for the division title in their final regular-season game, but that was a veteran team that had won before. The 1993 team -- with a couple of exceptions -- does not have a history of success to fall back on.

"I think it's fair to say that," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who was on that 1982 club that fell a game short of the Milwaukee Brewers. "If you're a ballplayer, the important thing is how you perceive what's going on and how you react to it. We were a veteran team. We knew that it's a 162-game season. Whether you're 5-12 or 12-5, you still have to play out the season."

This year's club has plenty of time -- and sufficient talent -- to recover from its frightening first month, but the Orioles have put themselves at a decided divisional disadvantage.

"I don't think there's reason for panic," Palmer said, "but there is reason for concern. I think it's normal to think that since the Orioles won 88 games last year [actually 89], you'll win 88 or better because the young players have another year of experience, but it doesn't always happen that way. There are no guarantees."

The Orioles probably would have to win at least four more games than last year to win the division title, and that is assuming that the Blue Jays and the rest of the division has softened some. Toronto won 96 games in 1992, but they needed just 93 to outdistance the field. For the Orioles to win 93 games, they would have to play .603 ball the rest of the way.

The Twins bounced back to win 95 games after their 2-9 start in 1991. It could happen in Baltimore.

"They're going to play well," MacPhail said. "We don't think that there is a dominant team in the league. It's going to be a wild, harum-scarum season. The team that stays healthiest and gets

production from its young players can win it."

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