Heck with stars, this O's fan wants season to resume


The word provincial is defined as "narrow-mindedly local." That's the way I feel right now.

The United States gets eliminated from World Cup soccer -- has this thing been going on for months or does it just seem like it? -- and my interest in the tournament all but vanishes.

That's strange, in a way, because eight days ago I was fascinated by the U.S. vs. Brazil game.

I've grown very provincial about baseball, too.

Last year, when the All-Star Game was played here, it seemed like the biggest sports event imaginable. Tonight the Stars battle it out in Pittsburgh and I could not care less.

Sure, our own Cal Ripken is playing for the American League. He's starting for the 11th straight year, a record for major-league shortstops.

Cal is incredible, as the world knows by now. He plays every game, year after year. He's batting .306, has 12 homers, 65 runs batted in.

We all want to see Cal tonight, of course, but I don't like the fact that he's batting seventh in the order.

I wish Mike Mussina (13-4, 2.96) were starting. That would have been a good way for AL manager Cito Gaston to end the lingering sourness from the '93 game, when he did not use Mussina here. And we're all hoping to see Lee Smith in his closer role tonight. With 29 saves, he's having a true All-Star year.

But the real truth is, I just don't like dropping the real season at this point so we can have an All-Star Game -- even though baseball still has the best Star show of any sport (maybe because the others are so bad).

No, what I want now is real Orioles games, games that count in the standings.

I was thinking that at Camden Yards Sunday. The Orioles haven't even been in the playoffs in 11 years, though you would never know it judging by fan support. The club is presently riding a string of 40 straight sellouts.

Despite the disappointing 5-4, ninth-inning loss to Oakland here Sunday, the Orioles are 50-36. That's the best record they've had at the break since 1979, when they won the pennant and lost in seven in the Series against Pittsburgh.

We're hungry for success in Baltimore, and a lot of us think we're beginning to smell it.

The mere fact that the club is a half-game behind the Yankees in the AL East at the break doesn't much matter. There are still 76 games to play.

What does matter is that the Orioles, who were expected to contend this year, are doing precisely that. They're playing well. Finally.

One heartbreaking loss like Sunday's can take on exaggerated importance. Overlooked is that the Orioles were 7-3 on that homestand.

Before Sunday's game here, I talked with manager Johnny Oates.

"How're you feeling?" I asked.

"Great," he said.

If you remember where the club was, and where Oates was, six weeks ago, you have to be pleased that he's feeling "great" now.

Back on June 1, the Orioles had lost five of their previous six games. They were six games behind the first-place Yankees. It was beginning to look as if they were dropping out of the race.

What's more, the team's rookie owner, Pete Angelos, was telling reporters of his dissatisfaction with Oates -- and with general manager Roland Hemond.

Oates didn't feel so great then. He was upset, as he had a right to be, and his players sensed it.

Ballplayers watch stuff like that closely. When the heat gets intense, they distance themselves from a manager. They wonder when it's going to happen.

Things were that bad just a little over a month ago.

Since then the club has won 22 of 34 games and everything has changed.

"What do you hear from the owner?" I asked Oates.

"Haven't heard from him," he said.

One big reason Oates feels great now is that his club is healthy once again.

"I looked it up," the skipper said, "and today for the first time since the 12th game of the season we have our regular starting eight in the lineup.

"All clubs have injuries, and sometimes you have a lot of 'em. That's why you have ups and downs."

Mussina, selected to the All-Stars for a third straight year, was packing his bag for Pittsburgh.

"You excited about playing in another All-Star Game?" I asked.

"Sure," he said.

"Yeah, I guess you are," I said. "Being there with all the best in the majors -- that's the top honor in the game."

"No, it's not," Mussina said. "Winning the World Series is. We'll work on that after the break."

With everybody getting excited about the second half, it's a shame the specter of a strike hangs over the game.

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