Owner name-drops, Oates' jaw drops


When Peter Angelos met with Johnny Oates for 3 1/2 hours Tuesday, the subject wasn't just Oates' contract status.

Over lunch, Angelos named several players the Orioles might pursue, and Oates practically dropped his fork.

"He gave me chill bumps," Oates said. "I thought, 'You kidding me?' "

Oates isn't accustomed to such talk from his owner -- heck, he rarely even spoke with Eli Jacobs. But here was Angelos, taking the initiative, vowing to improve the club.

"He told me what he wanted," Oates said, smiling. "He said, 'How's this sound?' I said, 'Pretty good.'

"Some of them sounded very good. He was very opinionated. He has an idea of what he wants. He wanted to know if they fit my needs. We were just talking about options. It was great having someone to talk about options with."

As opposed to the previous owner, whose baseball curiosity was satisfied once dinner was served at the Camden Club.

Oates and general manager Roland Hemond could barely contain their excitement yesterday, and not just because of their new two-year contracts.

Angelos promises a brave new world, a world in which the Orioles can compete on a level playing field, a world in which the Toronto Blue Jays don't seem so far out of reach.

"Their pitching is suspect," Hemond said yesterday, with the Blue Jays one victory away from their second straight world championship. "They can be had."

"We certainly extended them this season. The losses of Gregg Olson and Mike Mussina were severe blows. If Juan Guzman and Duane Ward had not been around the last seven weeks -- or not up to their usual performance -- we might have caught them, and passed them."

Hemond is right, but only to a point. Shortstop Cal Ripken and catcher Chris Hoiles are the only Orioles who would start for the Blue Jays -- and Toronto isn't exactly hurting at those positions with Tony Fernandez and Pat Borders.

In the past 10 years, the Orioles have had only three players drive in 100 runs and only four score 100. This season alone, the Blue Jays had three drive in 100 and five score 100, if you include Rickey Henderson.

The gap only gets larger considering the uncertain conditions of Olson and outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds -- and Oates' ranking of the Orioles' off-season priorities.

"My No. 1 need is pitching. My No. 2 need is pitching. My No. 3 need is pitching," Oates said. "Give me pitching, and we'll win -- ++ especially starting pitching."

Still, Oates knows the Orioles can't stop there. In their Tuesday meeting, Angelos would mention certain players, then ask, "Is he the type of person you'd want? Is he the leader you're looking for?"

"That's something he's aware of," Oates said. "We need a couple of leader types, impact players."

The two most obvious candidates are potential free agents Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro. Club officials are split on which

left-handed-hitting, 29-year-old first baseman would be a better fit.

Clark is more fiery, but his knees are questionable and he has averaged only 15 homers and 73 RBI the past two seasons. Palmeiro is coming off a career-best 37-homer, 105-RBI season, but he's as laid-back as most of the current Orioles.

Chances are, the Orioles won't get either -- Clark seems likely to re-sign with San Francisco, and Palmeiro still could return to Texas, even after rejecting the club's initial five-year, $25 million offer. But they'd probably have a better shot at Palmeiro.

Palmeiro's agent, Jim Bronner, said yesterday that he expects his client to file for free agency. "There certainly has been a lot of speculation about Baltimore, the Mets, the White Sox," Bronner said. "It [the Orioles' interest] wouldn't surprise me."

Earl Winn, the scout who delivered Palmeiro to the Chicago Cubs, now works for the Orioles. So does Gary Nickels, the Cubs' former Midwest scouting supervisor who was in the room with Winn the day he signed Palmeiro in 1985.

Former Cubs VP Gordon Goldsberry was another Palmeiro booster -- he, too, now works for the Orioles. In fact, a difference in opinion on Palmeiro is one reason the Cubs fired Goldsberry and Nickels in 1988. One month after their dismissals, Chicago sent Palmeiro to Texas in the Mitch Williams trade.

Maybe it all means nothing, but the presence of Angelos makes such a debate meaningful. "Either he knows more about baseball than he lets on, or somebody is briefing him before he talks," Oates said.

Who cares?

As long as the job gets done.

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