Why aren't O's better? It's more than pitching

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Think about all the Boston Red Sox have been through -- their lousy start, manager Kevin Kennedy changing closers, second basemen and center fielders faster than George Steinbrenner used to change his manager.

Jose Canseco got hurt, and so did Kevin Mitchell. Wil Cordero broke his leg, an injury that may keep him from making a significant contribution this year. They led the American League in errors for more than two months.

Now think about this: Since April 17, the Red Sox have a better record (26-25) than the Orioles (24-26). That's an embarrassment. In fact, it's somewhat ridiculous that the Orioles aren't leading the AL East, a more mediocre division than any other than the National League Central.

Oh, sure, the Orioles have had a few troubles that weren't of their own making. Armando Benitez went on the disabled list with a small tear in an elbow ligament, and that hurt the bullpen depth. B. J. Surhoff sprained his ankle, and to lose a gamer like Surhoff hurts.

But the Orioles haven't suffered a traumatic injury like the Yankees, who lost ace David Cone. The Orioles throw out a lineup of All-Stars every day, the Blue Jays throw out fading stars or inexperienced youngsters, and Toronto has lost only three games in the standings to the Orioles in two months.

The Orioles have six players who may drive in 100 runs, and they are losing ground. They have the player that probably would win the AL Most Valuable Player award if the vote were taken today, in Roberto Alomar. Closer Randy Myers has been solid, Roger McDowell pitched well in middle relief. Brady Anderson is going so well that he's being asked if his bat is corked, and they are losing ground.

Statistics show that the starting pitching is the most tangible reason this team is suffering, having allowed 104 runs in 103 1/3 innings through Thursday's 10-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals.

But there is something obviously wrong with this team, beyond the numbers. It's easy to say that the Orioles are underachieving because they have a collection of millionaires, and it would be untrue. Surhoff, Alomar and Cal Ripken are millionaires several times over and they play to win every single day. Myers is a millionaire, and every day he is in the weight room preparing for his next appearance. McDowell is a millionaire, and if you come out early to the park, chances are you'll see him running in the outfield. Alan Mills is a millionaire, and he shags in early batting practice just about every chance he gets.

It would be easy to say that this team was thrown together like a collection of Rotisserie players, and that, too, would be untrue. Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson didn't dive recklessly into the free-agent market, as the Yankees often have done.

Their three biggest additions were Alomar, Surhoff and Myers, who have been good, and they traded for a pitcher, David Wells, whom Johnson knew firsthand. They traded two decent prospects for Kent Mercker, using the sound logic that he might thrive when given a chance to start every fifth day.

It would be easy to point the finger at Johnson and his staff; Johnson admitted last week that his inexperience in this league has hurt him, that perhaps he didn't fully comprehend the difficulty Bobby Bonilla would have making the transition to being a designated hitter. But that might just be Johnson assuming responsibility even if he isn't at fault, something he does in an almost knee-jerk way.

It would be easy to say that Johnson's discussion of moving Ripken to third has shaken the stability of this team to the point where it isn't effective, but that would be absurd -- Johnson only considered that move because the team, and Ripken, weren't playing well.

There are no simple answers to explain some of the things that have transpired. For an inning or two, the Orioles' talent can seem overwhelming, with Anderson, Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Bonilla hammering away. And then there are times when they look uninspired and uninterested.

Wells was so blatant in his indifference on the mound a couple of weeks ago that his former manager, Sparky Anderson, chastised him for it the next day. There was a play at first base last Sunday in which neither Palmeiro nor the pitcher, Arthur Rhodes, hustled to cover first and the runner was safe. Brady Anderson was thrown out at third attempting to advance on a fly ball last weekend, the third out in the inning, with the Orioles trailing 12-9. Strange.

And in the Detroit series, a number of players simply did not run hard to first base on fly balls and grounders. In fact, Ripken, Surhoff and Jeffrey Hammonds are the only everyday players on this team who run hard every time; this team might be among the most stylish, but they would rank last in the AL in body language.

The worst example of this came Monday in Detroit, when Wells was pitching in a 0-0 game. There was a runner at second, two out, and rookie Kimera Bartee at the plate. Bartee played in Double-A last year. Wells, having problems getting together with catcher Chris Hoiles on signs, was frustrated when a borderline 2-2 pitch was called a ball, and before he threw his next pitch, Wells flipped the ball in the air in frustration.

Bartee, hitting barely over .200 in his rookie year, said this later: "That's when I knew I had him."

Bartee was right. He singled over shortstop, driving home what proved to be the winning run.

Last month in Chicago, with the Orioles down 8-0, Hammonds hit a homer and stood at the plate admiring his work. The Orioles trailed 5-0 Thursday when Anderson homered, and he remained at home until he got a good look.

The Orioles need a better effort from their starters to shake out of this slump. They need more concentration, and a greater intensity.

They need Ripken to demonstrate to others how to play with intensity, as he does. Ripken leads by example and through the respect that the other players have for him, but that is all the more reason for him to flex his competitive power directly -- something that the 1995 coaching staff desperately wanted him to do.

Johnson can go to the mound and tell a pitcher to bear down, as he did with Mercker the other night, and it won't necessarily work; it didn't with Mercker, who said later he thought Johnson took him out too soon. Many players seem to view Johnson like schoolchildren see a principal: They don't respect him because of who he is, but only because of the authority he possesses, fallout from the proposed move of Ripken to third base.

If Ripken told any of his teammates he didn't think they were running hard enough to first, rest assured, they would do so the next time. Nobody carries the sort of weight he does in the clubhouse. Not Johnson, not anybody.

Ripken is, in a sense, the king of England, and whether he prefers this or not, he can accept the challenges of his whole monarchy or attend to Buckingham Palace.

There's still plenty of time for this team to run away with the division. Heck, the Yankees and Red Sox have so many problems that the Orioles probably could play this style of baseball the rest of the year and still run away. But if they are to reach their potential, they need to change.

Under new management

Reds employees were somewhat giddy about the departure of owner Marge Schott this week -- ding-dong, the witch is dead -- and there may be genuine reason to celebrate. John Allen, who has assumed control of the club, has indicated to others that he intends to do everything that Schott hadn't done in recent years -- market the team, have special days for MVP Barry Larkin, post the retired numbers in Riverfront Stadium, promote the team, draw fans to the park. Allen was thought to be Schott's intractable right-hand man, but, apparently, he is seeing this as a chance to distinguish himself in the game.

Around the horn

The Padres are in a deep slide right now, with No. 2 starter Andy Ashby suffering from a sore shoulder, Wally Joyner on the disabled list and Tony Gwynn hobbled by foot trouble. They need a shortstop, but, ultimately, their biggest need may be for a power hitter. You know Gwynn's feet are killing him, because he sat out Friday's game against Chicago with the team in a losing streak.

The Mariners want to sign shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a multi-year contract now, in the range of four years for $5 million. Reportedly, Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, wants $10 million over four years.

Frank Thomas is ahead of Hank Aaron's home run pace after six full seasons. But Thomas would have to play about 18 1/2 more seasons at his current pace to catch the home run king.

The Dodgers are underachieving, and their chemistry, or lack thereof, may be part of the problem. "Our chemistry isn't the best, we all know that, and I think it reflects in our play," said second baseman Delino DeShields. "There's a lot of good guys in here, but it's no secret we don't hang together. A lot of guys don't even talk to each other." A member of the Dodgers noted that 22 San Diego players and staff played golf together on an off-day in Philadelphia. "I don't even know if we could get a foursome together," said one Dodger.

The Indians may move Julian Tavarez to the rotation when he returns from his suspension.

You may recall that umpire Joe Brinkman had started calling balls and strikes from four or five feet behind the catcher, so as to avoid foul tips. After Kansas City right-hander Tim Belcher criticized Brinkman, saying that Brinkman's attitude "is an embarrassment to his profession," the umpire positioned himself right behind the catcher in his next game. Where he should be.

The Astros moved Brian Hunter from first to sixth in the lineup, with John Cangelosi becoming the leadoff hitter.

A Denver reporter asked Braves manager Bobby Cox if the arm of ace Greg Maddux is hurting, after the Rockies pounded him last week. Cox erupted. "If he had a sore arm, he wouldn't be pitching," Cox screamed.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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