'99 a minus for O's despite individual pluses; 'Dysfunctional' season had its ups, too, but as group O's were disappointment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By yesterday the Orioles had left behind the 1999 season like defective merchandise, with only a notable few exceptions, including Mike Mussina, Sidney Ponson and Doug Johns, returning to gather belongings and exchange goodbyes with equipment manager Jim Tyler. Ray Miller's office remained dark as the uncertainty caused by a lost season began.

First baseman Jeff Conine called Sunday's last game "a relief," perhaps an understated description given a 78-84 season that boasted of numerous individual accomplishments but an overwhelming disappointment from an $84 million clubhouse.

Albert Belle salvaged his offensive numbers. Cal Ripken reached 400 home runs. Most Valuable Oriole B. J. Surhoff produced 200 hits and Mike Mussina again tickled but failed to grasp 20 wins. Shortstop Mike Bordick gained backing as a Gold Glove candidate. Catcher Charles Johnson provided a defensive deterrent to a club long used to unpunished larceny. Yet 1999 will be remembered for the sum of its parts far outweighing the value of the whole.

It was a year in which a player's brother berated third base coach Sam Perlozzo from the stands for not sending a runner home because it cost his sibling an RBI.

It was a year that took majority owner Peter Angelos only weeks to berate first-year general manager Frank Wren for incompetence. (The two eventually reached at least a temporary truce.)

It was a year in which a pitcher played 44 holes of golf the day before making a disastrous start, leading to Miller's ban of golf clubs on the road.

But 1999 was also a year in which ownership embraced the concept of player development as both a means of cost efficiency and continuity that has long eluded the franchise. Rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston convinced many that he is major-league-ready while Jesse Garcia suggested his time as a utility player is near. The Orioles exercised seven of the amateur draft's first 50 picks and later signed 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Luis Alou, son of Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, to a bonus of about $300,000.

Before the march ended, Miller had labeled his clubhouse "dysfunctional," Wren wondered how a statistically impressive team could be in fourth place and one of the game's most loyal followings had begun to chafe at a product ridiculed within the industry. Goodbye to the '99 season.

Feel free to bend, fold and mutilate.

When 11 isn't enough

Despite obvious signs that starting pitchers Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson were not comfortable leaving spring training, the Orioles kept only 11 pitchers in order to hold onto infielder Willis Otanez, a then-25-year-old prospect with no remaining waivers. When Otanez was released May 25, he was hitting .213 with 11 RBIs. The slow-starting rotation was 13-18 with a 5.86 ERA and the short-staffed bullpen 3-9 with a 5.82 ERA.

Erickson won his second game June 9. Ponson won once in April.

Miller's April outburst

Able to hold his tongue during a 4-13 start, Miller let loose after an 11-10 home loss to the Oakland Athletics on April 25. "If you've got any questions, if you want a story, go out in the clubhouse. They're the ones making all the money. Have them explain to you how they did and how they performed in front of 47,000 people," Miller said, adding that his staff pitched "like 12-year-olds" and questioned the "courage" of his veteran roster. The Orioles finished the month 6-16.

Meetings, meetings

Miller's attempts to unify the clubhouse through team meetings did not go well. During an April 27 meeting -- his second of the season -- Miller was urged by one veteran to "let the players play."

Wren did not condone Miller's message from two days before, saying: "I think it was unfortunate that happened. Some of the things Ray said, I thought he was right on. But I'm not sure about the forum."

Wren urged Angelos to dismiss Miller the day after his office outburst. Angelos considered the recommendation and briefly concurred before rejecting the advice.

Belle's broken promise

Belle signed his five-year, $65 million contract (including a three-year no-trade clause) Dec. 1 and pledged to produce while also shedding his image as a lightning rod for media and fans. Belle needed only several weeks of spring training to impose a blackout on Baltimore media.

Several days after making obscene gestures to hecklers in Camden Yards' right-field bleachers, Belle launched a protracted verbal tirade at Miller -- and later at reporters -- during and after a June 9 win in Florida. Belle, traditionally a ponderous starter, was hitting .244 at the time. Orioles officials began looking for a loophole that might allow them to void his contract.

Of Belle's 37 home runs and 117 RBIs, 27 homers and 82 RBIs came after the Orioles fell 15 games under .500 June 8.

Out of their division

The Orioles prospered everywhere except in their pitching-rich division. They finished 63-50 outside the American League East, including 11-7 in interleague play. They dominated teams with losing records, were 42-33 after the All-Star break and swept Atlanta in a stunning three-game series at Turner Field. However, their 15-34 record within the division was the worst in franchise history.

Lowlights featured a 1-11 record against the Toronto Blue Jays and a 4-9 record against the New York Yankees. Four times the Orioles blew leads to the Blue Jays in the eighth inning or later.

An April loss so irritated Miller that he drove his hand through an office chair. Miller's bruised hand recovered. The same could not be said of the chair or the division mark.

Ripken's historic chase

The death of his father in March and Ripken's placement on the disabled list April 18 presented a crushing combination to start the season. But whispers about possible retirement and eroding skills evaporated when the Iron Man returned to piece together a remarkable season that carried him past 400 home runs and within nine hits of 3,000 before nerve irritation finally ended his year Sept. 22. Reunited with hitting coach Terry Crowley, Ripken found a comfortable stance and quicker bat speed. Ripken had a six-hit game in Atlanta on June 13, mashed a .474 average his last 10 games and hit his 400th home run Sept. 2 one day after coming off the DL a second time.

Sept. 23 back surgery to alleviate stenosis offers Ripken the prospect of 2000 being his first pain-free season since 1996.

Offensive records fall

The Orioles' fourth-place season wasn't due to lack of scoring. They "won" the season by 851-815 and set a franchise record for hits, tied the record for doubles and hit 203 home runs.

Surhoff threatened Ripken's team hits record but settled for a .308 average and a career-high 28 home runs and 107 RBIs after making his first-ever All-Star team. Harold Baines drove in 100 runs as a 40-year-old designated hitter but split his season between Baltimore and Cleveland. Eight Orioles hit at least 10 home runs, six finished with at least 25 doubles and three scored more than 100 runs. Coming off his most disappointing year, Brady Anderson came within one home run of his first 25-25 season while leading the team with a .404 on-base average.

Bordick enjoyed career highs in runs and RBIs. Belle put together another impressive season with 74 extra-base hits, 117 RBIs, 108 runs and a .400 on-base percentage. Belle remains the AL leader in RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases since 1991.

Wren stockpiles arms

No longer mesmerized by the immediate, the Orioles acquired four young arms in late-season trades involving Juan Guzman and Baines. They also used the first two selections of the amateur draft on arms.

Wren's acquisition of Jason Johnson from Tampa Bay for outfield prospect Danny Clyburn was a steal. Given Ponson (22) and the promise of Matt Riley (20), the Orioles are approaching a position of strength.

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