CLEVELAND - Sammy Ellis might be the perfect pitching coach for the Orioles. His hair turned white long before he got here.
A season that began with 40 percent of the Orioles' projected starting rotation absent and their closer on the disabled list has never taken shape. The Orioles have the worst ERA in baseball in a season in which pitching has been virtually nonexistent. The Orioles are assured their worst team ERA in franchise history, entering the weekend at 5.58, more than a half run above the 5.01 of 1987.
Three of the organization's most valuable young arms have made little or no progress. Scott Erickson returned from arthroscopic surgery only to finally undergo ligament replacement surgery. Entering the weekend, the Orioles had surrendered at least 10 runs 24 times - or more than once every six games - compared with 17 times last season. The staff ace showed up this spring training as a nonroster invitee.
"We never could catch up," says Ellis. "We've always been plugging holes. One of the worst things you can do as a pitching staff is put guys in roles they're not comfortable with. We had that from the get-go."
Whether this season's meltdown will be explained by injuries and youthful inconsistency remains for manager Mike Hargrove and the front office to decide. Ellis concedes frustration over landing in what has been a hot spot ever since the opening week of spring training.
"If people want to link me with the pitching being poor this year - and it has been poor - they're welcome to do that," says Ellis, 59, named last December as Hargrove's pitching coach.
"If people want to say the pitching was poor because of Sammy Ellis, then that's their opinion. I'm not going to change the way I go about what I do. I'm always open for advice. I'm always open for innovation; I always have been. Whatever people want to say, I don't care. It doesn't bother me. The pitching has been poor, no question."
Orioles pitching coaches enjoy the security of a helicopter gunner. Ellis is the seventh in seven seasons and has no idea whether there will be an eighth in 2001. He has bitten his tongue several times this season. He takes little credit for Jose Mercedes' remarkable second half but does not distance himself from the season's inescapable problems.
"I think Grover and I have worked well together. We've had our hearts chewed out many, many games. He hasn't panicked. He hasn't screamed and hollered. And I haven't panicked," says Ellis. "Grover's been a real pleasure to work with, especially the way the pitching's gone. It would have been real easy for a manager to get his nose out of shape and start pointing fingers. But he's never done that. As far as upper management, I don't know how they feel."
Ellis has discovered what many before him have learned. Change is rarely embraced in this clubhouse. Trust and respect only come grudgingly. The starting rotation has long been a hard place, where pitching coaches are spit out like sunflower seeds. Davey Johnson's first pitching coach, Pat Dobson, was run off after the team reached the 1996 ALCS. Erickson publicly dissed Dobson during a postseason press conference and Mussina once ordered him from the mound. Majority owner Peter Angelos ultimately mandated his firing, in part, as a test of Johnson's loyalty to a friend. Last season, Sidney Ponson had no use for pitching coach Bruce Kison. Doug Johns even balked at joining a regularly scheduled pitchers meeting.
In the last six years - an era covering six pitching coaches - only Ray Miller and Mike Flanagan have enjoyed unrestricted entry.
Unlike Miller and Flanagan, Ellis carries no previous ties to the organization. His arrival at spring training coincided with Erickson's loss to elbow surgery and Jason Johnson's confounding lack of command, which ultimately led to his March option to Rochester. Making matters worse, Mike Timlin suffered a muscle pull during the team's final spring exhibition and was lost for the first two weeks.of the season. The staff tanked and never recovered before last month's clubhouse purge.
A healthy Erickson would have brought 225 innings and at least a .500 record, according to Ellis. Johnson was supposed to be the staff's fourth starter. Ponson and Ryan were poised for breakout years. Ryan even was projected as a future closer.
Ellis says his greatest frustration has been the stagnated progress of Ponson, Ryan and Johnson. He is most proud of a career spent helping young pitchers develop. A mechanics guru, Ellis helped make Dave Righetti and Randy Johnson better with the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners. With the Chicago White Sox, he helped Don Pall. This year has been different.
Gifted enough to win five of his last seven starts in 1999, Johnson hasn't appeared comfortable since being optioned and can't be counted upon for next season's rotation.
Ryan, 24, fell off the organizational radar screen after a blown save in Yankee Stadium appeared to traumatize his confidence and eventually affect his mechanics, robbing his velocity.
Ponson, as headstrong as he is gifted, has hovered around .500 all season while exhibiting no greater trust in his off-speed pitches than he did a year ago. At a time when Ponson should experience a breakthrough, his ERA has increased by half a run. He has at times appeared dismissive of Ellis, though Ellis says the two enjoy a good relationship while attributing some of Ponson's on-field moves to youth.
Ellis' frustration is not to be mistaken for despair. The more he sees of young organizational arms such as John Parrish, Ryan Kohlmeier and Jay Spurgeon, the more he is impressed.
"I like what we're doing now," emphasizes Ellis. "We're bringing in kids who have pretty good arms. Parrish, Kohlmeier and Spurgeon. I love to see kids who have good composure and who are organized. They haven't shown any fear. Even though Parrish has struggled, he's never shown fear. You don't see panic in his eyes. You don't see panic in Kohlmeier - ever. You don't see it in Spurgeon. I believe those are the type of people you can build a pitching staff with."