Oriole team, like its excuses, is just weak


Read a story recently about how distraught, disappointed and disadvantaged Ben McDonald has become pitching under the dictates of an old contract. Hey, we're dealing with very tender egos here, remember.

And just last week, Mike Mussina delivered his "We're kind of going through the motions" address (notes on the back of an envelope) while suggesting his Orioles mates and their ho-hum play failed to remind him of the fire and brimstone play of the St. Louis Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang" of '34.

Among the latest uniform personnel to voice displeasure with the current state of affairs with the Orioles is Matt Nokes, he of the .083 batting average. The only thing worse than the hitting of the last-string catcher to date has been the percentage of runners attempting to steal he has thrown out: .000 (0-for-8).

So Leo Gomez showed up a little fat. You didn't think all the weight Sid Fernandez dropped just disappeared into thin air did you? The third baseman hit .274 last year and figured that would hold him in good stead despite carrying a whispering .210 batting average as the quarter pole of the 144-game season arrives.

El Sid hasn't won a game yet, but you have to assume he's having trouble adjusting to his svelte new frame and the fact he no longer has all that momentum going plateward as he did last season when he notched six big wins.

Others who aren't doing much with the stick include Chris Hoiles, Manny Alexander and the team's ambassador to the disabled list, Andy Van Slyke.

With just one win after his first eight starts, McDonald has his contract excuse, which will be settled soon when a decision on his arbitration case is handed down.

Watch, if Big Ben gets his desired near-$2 million raise, he's apt to run off a dozen wins in a row. If he loses and is restricted to a skimpy $525,000 increase, well, what's to be expected from an artist who's not completely happy?

It would be easy to go on and kick holes in the performances of all Orioles, collectively and individually, but this assignment will remain where it belongs, with the people who ring up radio sports talk shows: "Get rid of Ripken, Palmiero and Mussina and bring back Eddie Murray."

Very definitely, now is not the time to panic (save it for August) and it would be a bigger surprise at this juncture if the embarrassment of trailing the Detroit Tigers wasn't causing this restlessness. Imagine the general tone of things where 161st Street meets Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, New York, with the vaunted Yankees sputtering even worse.

Tiring of looking at the statistics and noting that it's difficult for a team to win consistently when the staff earned run average exceeds the average runs scored per game, some experts have been expounding on the intangibles they perceive missing.

It was after Mussina deftly turned attention away from the fact that he had blown a 4-0 lead and knocked the team for not living up to its advance billing that Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan decided "Mussina's come of age. He's ready for that leadership role."

Ah, that elusive, transient, obtuse, near indefinable word finally shows up. Leadership is the ability to lead (got it so far?), which means to show the way to, or direct the course of, to direct, as by persuasion or influence, to be first or foremost among, etc.

When things aren't going well, two words pop up immediately accompanied by the prefix "lack of:" leadership and chemistry. They tell the story of former Birds manager Johnny Oates storming into the clubhouse last year and raging, "Who's going to lead us?"

Uh, what about the manager? After all, when all else fails, it usually falls upon the guy making out the lineup card or ordering the pitching changes to cause things to turn around; otherwise, he's gone. See Oates.

Frank Robinson was accused of being a leader with his caustic wit, his dedication to the game and his Hall of Fame skills. As important as any of these attributes, however, was Frank's disdain for the opposition from the opening of spring training to the end of the World Series . . . and probably through the off-season, too.

Assuming Cal Ripken isn't going to change his stripes and suddenly become Leo Durocher and Ben McDonald isn't likely to win 25 games this year and become the spiritual leader of the team as Tom Seaver did with the Miracle Mets of 1969, maybe it's incumbent on every Oriole to adopt some F. Robby-type ill humor (alias nastiness) once a game starts.

Something similar to what the front office showed Sunday night when it turned thumbs down to Kato Kaelin, the world's witness who made an offer to throw out the first ball of a nationally televised yawner against Oakland.

Heck, they wouldn't even let him sleep in the clubhouse afterward.

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