Orioles' minor-league loss is a major embarrassment


IT USED to be The Oriole Way meant going through Triple-A Rochester to get to Baltimore and the big leagues. For 42 seasons, that's the way it was.

"The fans were always great. We loved going there," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said yesterday.

Now, however, it won't be only Palmer who talks glowingly about Rochester in the past tense.

Forty-two seasons of Orioles baseball history went down the drain this week.

The longest-running relationship in baseball between a major-league club and its top minor-league affiliate went up in smoke.

Poof. Gone. Just like that.

Actually, it's worse.

The Rochester Red Wings put the Orioles on notice last year, saying that if the losing and the lack of quality minor-league players continued, the Red Wings would have no choice but to fire the Orioles.

The losing didn't stop - not here nor there.

The Orioles' minor-league cupboard is still quite bare - by former Orioles standards.

"We used to have Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson as our starters. Then Merv Rettenmund, Terry Crowley, Curt Motton and Davey May all up here," Palmer said.

"And then you'd have guys like Don Baylor and Bobby Grich coming through Rochester. We had all kinds of players, not like now. It's kind of like the water shortage here in Maryland. There's a major drought in the Orioles' system."

The drought - a nice term for a systemic crisis - has now cost the Orioles big time. Despite serious misgivings about severing a terrific, long-term relationship, the Red Wings did exactly that.

On Tuesday, they handed out a big pink slip - one that should make the faces of the Orioles' front office red, because usually it's the other way around. Usually, it's the big-league team that fires the little guys. But the Red Wings have a bottom line, and they issued it to the Orioles.

"The farm system, even below us, is showing signs of struggling. It's going to be several years before we can get a contender," Red Wings owner Naomi Silver said yesterday.

"Our fans have really been patient. It's been five years and finally, they've spoken. They asked us how much longer do you expect us to support this team? You've got to get us a team we can support."

So Tuesday, the Rochester club signed a new deal with the Minnesota Twins.

That's right, folks, the Twins - a team that was on baseball commissioner Bud Selig's contraction list. Meanwhile, the Orioles, whose owner, Peter Angelos, sat at the bargaining table this summer, are allegedly still one of baseball's power brokers.

With a beautiful stadium and a huge, loyal fan base, the Orioles should, in theory, never lag behind the Twins for anything.

But try telling that to the people in Rochester, where The Oriole Way that once made Baltimore's minor-league system the most envied in baseball has all but evaporated.

"Nothing would have made us happier than staying with the Orioles for the next 40 years. We've always appreciated their friendship and kindness," Silver said, adding, "The Twins were able to reassure us, though. Their organization is a strong one."

Stretching the embarrassment factor to near epic proportions, the Orioles are now left to scramble for a deal with the Triple-A affiliate in Ottawa. That Canadian outpost is available because they just fired the Montreal Expos as their big-league sponsor. Ottawa had concerns about the future and stability of that soon-to-be-relocated major-league franchise.

So there you have it: The Orioles are somewhere between the Twins and Expos in terms of their desirability among minor-league affiliates.

For Baltimoreans who grew up witnessing the miraculous effects of The Oriole Way, the idea that the Orioles are one of the worst affiliate options in the major leagues is beyond comprehension.

That the Red Wings would take such drastic measures is astounding.

That the Orioles could do nothing to preserve this relationship is sad, regrettable, maybe even shameful.

Pick any of those words, but whatever word you do pick, it only begins to describe a situation within the Orioles' organization that no one - not one person - interprets to mean anything except trouble.

"It's not ideal, is it?" said vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift.

And that was about the best anyone could say.

Elsewhere, there is an overwhelming sense that this Red Wings debacle is one more eye-popping symbol of just how far the Orioles have fallen.

The Orioles have been careening from big free-agent spending back to a so-called youth movement. But if there is such a good youth movement taking place, why did the Red Wings fire the Orioles?

In Rochester, one baseball expert believes the Red Wings debacle is only one in a long list of travails during Angelos' reign.

"He has fired the best broadcaster in baseball, Jon Miller. He's fired the best general managers, Pat Gillick and Doug Melvin. He's fired two great managers, Davey Johnson and Johnny Oates. They have losing records, and attendance is down. And now this [with the Red Wings.] That's quite a record," said Curt Smith.

A former speechwriter for the first President Bush, Smith was at Camden Yards on Opening Day in 1992 when Bush threw out the first pitch. With 10 baseball books to his credit, Smith is a unique and authoritative witness to the special relationship between the Red Wings and Orioles.

"These are two great baseball cities. Two great baseball traditions. Two great ballparks. For the last 42 years, this was the model relationship in baseball and one to be emulated," Smith said by phone from his Rochester office.

"But the feeling was, Rochester deserved better. It has 101 years of history itself. It's had only two partners in that entire time: the [St. Louis] Cards and the Orioles. The Red Wings did not want to do this, but they were forced to pull the trigger."

Make no mistake: It was a very painful hit, opening a wound inside the Orioles' organization that is far beyond skin deep.

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