If selfishness and disloyalty scored runs, this season's Orioles would be winners


ONE RECENT night in the Baltimore Orioles dugout, Manager Ray Miller laced into relief pitcher Terry Mathews, but good. Mathews, the most forlorn figure in a dreadful season, had dared to show his frustration when yanked from a ballgame. Miller was showing him who was boss. In fact, he thought he was showing everyone who was boss. The bawling-out was captured by a Home Team Sports television camera.

Later, it was reported, Miller thanked HTS color announcer Rick Cerone for the channel's presentation of his harangue. He figured it made him look like the firm commander of his ship.

Big deal. Picking on Terry Mathews, who's since been banished to baseball Siberia, is like picking on the puniest kid on the playground. If Ray Miller wants to show leadership, let him tell his 38-year-old third baseman that he needs an occasional rest, since he hasn't taken off his uniform since the early days of the first Reagan administration. If he wants to show leadership, let him confront his second baseman, who runs out ground balls only when the spirit moves him. If he confronts either of these guys, then perhaps he can talk about being the actual leader of this baseball team.

Ray Miller isn't the biggest problem with this year's pathetic Orioles, but he's the manager, so he's not a bad starting point. Three nights ago, as the team opened its second half of the season, Miller delivered a pep talk in the clubhouse. They still had a chance for a playoff spot, he announced with a straight face. They should still have fun playing the game, he declared.

Who knows if anybody was listening. Several Orioles are expected to be gone within weeks, which gets us to another problem. One of those rumored to be leaving is Roberto Alomar, the second baseman. When he feels like it, Alomar is merely magical. Even in this nightmare season, he's one of the club's two or three best players, and last week, rousing himself, he was the most valuable of baseball's all-stars.

But he's said to be departing Baltimore -- for reasons having nothing to do with his abilities, and everything to do with the modern game's tortured business side. Alomar's contract runs out this year. He can go wherever he wants when the season's done, and the belief is, he'll go elsewhere. Thus, the Orioles reluctantly feel a need to trade him while they can still get even a fraction of his value.

Why Alomar would want to leave is another matter. The Orioles already pay him a fabulous salary, and would continue to do so. Nobody expects gratitude for this, from Alomar or any other player -- but maybe they should.

Does anybody remember? When Alomar was vilified across the whole country for spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck, only one man in America stood up for him -- Peter Angelos, the Orioles owner, who said the spitting was provoked, and that Alomar was a good citizen. Angelos caught major flak for his defense, but stood by it.

Does it matter? When the major league ballplayers walked out several years ago, there was only one owner who took their side -- Angelos. The strike clobbered him financially, and his defense of big league ingrates again made Angelos a target of ridicule and bile. But he said the players had the same right to strike as any other group of working people.

This made him a hero to the ballplayers for as long as perhaps 10 minutes, which is their attention span. Having come back to work, all gratitude, all loyalty, enters the dustbin. Thus we have not only Alomar but the slugger Rafael Palmeiro on the trading block. The Orioles would love to keep them both, but believe they'll skip town at season's end.

So the ballclub will consist of aging former stars, and kids who are years from fulfillment. Angelos has made his mistakes, including his belief in the American dollar. Once, the Orioles called themselves "the best team money can't buy." It was a knock at the Yankees' George Steinbrenner for his profligate spending when Baltimore couldn't afford it. Also, it was a sign of pride in an organization that built from within, that held onto its players over the years, that won with pitching and defense.

But they got away from that when the dying, impatient Edward Bennett Williams bought the club, and they've never gotten back to the old methods. Everything's built around money now. The Orioles have only nine players remaining -- from their 1994 club.

It's that way all around baseball, where the average major leaguer changes teams every 3.3 seasons, where only half of today's players perform for the same teams they did one year ago, and where only 13 percent play for the same teams they did four years ago.

The Orioles have gotten caught in the switch. They stocked up on guys with big names, who win even if the team does not. They paid them lots of money, and thought it would count for something. They hired a manager who thinks he's a leader by yelling at his most pitiful player -- maybe because all the others would threaten to leave if he raised his voice at them.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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