They stood at Camden Yards in the ninth inning yesterday and honored a team on the verge of something special, in the same manner fans honored Cal Ripken last Sept. 6, the day he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. Cheers, loud and long.
But these weren't Orioles fans. They were Yankees fans, celebrating a 4-1 victory yesterday and the completion of a four-game series sweep, as well as New York's six-game season sweep in Baltimore -- the first ever. The Orioles are 10 games behind the Yankees and changes are imminent, and among the possibilities is the long-discussed shift of Ripken to third base.
Before yesterday's game, Orioles manager Davey Johnson met at length with owner Peter Angelos and assistant general manager Kevin Malone, with general manager Pat Gillick participating by telephone, and they discussed the general direction of the ballclub and possible moves.
After the game, after mental and physical mistakes cost the Orioles any chance of beating the Yankees, Johnson indicated there will be alterations.
"I've tried to accommodate a lot of people here," Johnson said. "It's a veteran ballclub. The majority of people here have been successful at this level.
"But if what you're doing is not working, if it doesn't fit with what's good for the team, short-term and long-term, we have to look at what is a fit . . . I'm not going to sit here and get hammered and stay with the same style. We're going to look at different styles."
Neither Johnson nor Malone would say exactly what alterations were discussed. "I'm not going to get into that," Johnson said.
But these are some possibilities:
Inserting Manny Alexander as the shortstop on a part-time or full-time basis, switching Ripken to third and third baseman B. J. Surhoff to the outfield or designated hitter (positions Surhoff has played in the past). Johnson talked about making the move in May, and Ripken has come alive offensively since then; he has done nothing to lose the job he has held exclusively since June 30, 1982.
But Alexander is one of the Orioles' very few internal options for change, and one of the very few possible trade commodities. The Orioles could play Alexander on a regular basis for the two weeks leading up to the trade deadline and attempt to deal him. Or, if they like what they see, the change could be permanent.
The Orioles also want more production and better defense from the outfield, and Surhoff may give them both.
Asked after the game about possible moves, Johnson paused and replied, "We broached the subject earlier in the year about moving Cal to third. . . . It would be tough, because he's the heart and soul of this team, and he's been playing great.
"This has nothing to do with individuals. This has something to do with leaving no stone unturned with what you have."
Johnson was asked if he talked to Ripken about this possibility. "I talked to him earlier [in May]," Johnson said.
There are risks in this, of course. Alexander hasn't been an everyday player since spring training and is bound to have a certain degree of rust to his game, and switching Ripken when he is playing effectively wouldn't be a popular move in the clubhouse. But as Johnson has said several times, managing is not a popularity contest.
Alexander, who has appeared in the last two games at second base after not playing in the field since June 18, may have an inkling that he is going to play more. For two months, he has been open in his discontent. But after yesterday's game, Alexander said he doesn't feel the same way.
Johnson said as recently as two weeks ago that should the Orioles falter, Alexander would get a chance to play shortstop -- and they certainly faltered against the Yankees.
The Orioles could rekindle trade talks with the Cleveland Indians and acquire Eddie Murray, who was relegated to part-time status last week. The Orioles and Indians have talked about a possible swap of left-hander Kent Mercker for Murray, with the Orioles asking for something else in the deal (maybe pitcher Albie Lopez or outfielders Brian Giles or Jeromy Burnitz). A Cleveland source indicated the Indians would be interested in Mercker if he agrees to go to Triple-A for a spell to build his arm strength and correct some mechanical flaws.
The Orioles could deal for a veteran catcher, such as San Francisco's Kirt Manwaring or Philadelphia's Benito Santiago. But Manwaring makes $1.875 million this year and was hitting .240 going into last night, and the Orioles have not talked to the Phillies about Santiago since the All-Star break.
They could commit to give outfielder Mark Smith, one of their few twentysomething prospects, regular playing time. Smith has struggled badly in part-time play since being promoted, with 12 hits in 65 at-bats (.185).
Some teams have expressed an interest in Bobby Bonilla, from the Indians to the Florida Marlins to the St. Louis Cardinals to the Chicago Cubs. Major-league sources indicate that the Orioles discussed with Chicago during the All-Star break a possible Bonilla-for-Brian McRae deal and those talks may be heating up this week.
The Orioles are six games behind the Chicago White Sox and three behind the Seattle Mariners in the race for the wild card, and club officials don't seem prepared to give up hope for 1996 when a five- or six-game winning streak could put them right back in the race.
"Right now, we're just trying to evaluate things," Malone said. "We're trying to figure out what we need to do to change the direction of the club. I feel we have the nucleus to win a championship.
"I don't think we're that far away. Maybe it looks like it because we've been losing, but we just need to see how we can help ourselves."
Johnson said: "This is a veteran ballclub, and when a veteran ballclub isn't playing well, it usually doesn't get better."
F: Not without changes, anyway. And changes will be made.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Huck Flener (season debut) vs. Orioles' Rick Krivda (2-4, 4.67)
-! Tickets: 5,300 tickets remain
In the cards?
The Orioles' chances of winning the AL East are fading rapidly. Here's where they stand in the wild-card race:
.. .. .. .. W .. L .. Pct. .. GB
Chicago ... 53 . 38 . .582 .. --
Seattle ... 49 . 40 . .551 ... 3
Orioles ... 46 . 43 . .517 ... 6
Oakland ... 45 . 47 . .489 .. 8 1/2
Milw'uke .. 44 . 46 . .489 .. 8 1/2
Pub Date: 7/15/96