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O's fans expect instant greatness, but they should be more grateful


IF YOU HAD asked me in February what the scene would be like in Baltimore if the Orioles were in first place in the American League East going into the final weekend of June, I would have predicted spontaneous celebration on every street corner and - considering the state of the organization the past seven years - apocalyptic images of cats lying down with dogs and Sidney Ponson ordering from the healthy fare menu at Baja Beach Club.

In short, I would have expected Orioles fans to be so enchanted by the possibility of a real playoff run that it would be hard to find anyone in the Inner Harbor not wearing an official Jimmyville T-shirt.

I would have been wrong, of course, and not just because I haven't yet come up with the perfect silkscreen. (Jim Hunter refuses to pose in a perky cheerleader costume.)

No, I would have been wrong because expectations have risen to the point where the club's first real slump has put a significant segment of Orioles Talk Show Nation in a serious funk.

I know this because I spend one night in-studio with WBAL Sportsline host Steve Davis each week, usually right after the Orioles radio broadcast and - lately - right after a couple of Orioles losses. I've got to tell you, you're not going to run into this much angst at a Swedish Film Festival.

(Sorry for the interruption, but I keep having this Bergmanesque image of Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie playing chess with Death and Death asking Jim to lighten up a little bit.)

I think Orioles fans need to count their blessings, not the shortcomings of a team that clearly has overachieved to get to the middle of the season five games ahead of the $200 million New York Yankees. But a lot of fans made the seamless transition from pleasant surprise to frustration and finger pointing well before the Orioles fell out of first place Friday night ... and fell a little further behind the sizzling Boston Red Sox yesterday.

It's been an education in counterintuitive fan behavior, and here's what I've learned: The Orioles were a great, great team that was going to win the AL East by 20 games until Sammy Sosa and Lee Mazzilli screwed everything up. Never mind that the team was picked to finish third or worse in the AL East by just about everyone (except me, who picked the Orioles second in an unusual burst of Opening Week homerism).

There are a dozen or so talk show reasons for their recent fall from grace, and here's a representative sampling:

1. Sosa must go. He's a stiff.

2. Mike Sweeney must come, even though he's on the disabled list.

3. Todd Helton wouldn't be bad, either.

4. The Orioles can't expect to win with this pitching staff.

5. The Orioles can't expect to win with this lineup.

6. The Orioles can't win with this manager.

7. Mazzilli isn't animated enough.

8. What's the difference, Mazzilli can't manage anyway. He must go.

9. The Orioles don't hit with men on base.

10. The Orioles don't hit when there aren't men on base.

11. Third base coach Tom Trebelhorn must go.

12. Fred Manfra looks much slimmer on radio.

OK, so I'm the one who started the Maz-isn't-animated chorus, and Manfra may just be wearing bigger clothes, but you get my drift. Tough crowd.

I can't say that all of the gripes are totally without merit. Sosa really doesn't look anything like the guy who averaged more than 52 home runs during the seven seasons leading up to his surprising trade to Baltimore. And one of his biggest apologists - me - now must admit that we're way past the whole historically slow starter thing.

It has been frustrating to watch the depleted offensive lineup search in vain for the exciting chemistry that carried the Orioles into first place during the early weeks of the season, but it's not really the same lineup without Melvin Mora and Javy Lopez.

There also is legitimate cause for concern about the starting rotation, with Erik Bedard still on the shelf and Bruce Chen hobbling off the mound with a shutout going yesterday.

And, yes, Mazzilli has made some strange decisions to lend credibility to the notion that he's a hunch player, but a lot of his supposed hunches have paid off, and sometimes you have to catch lightning in a bottle when your team is not at full strength.

There is no denying that the Orioles have hit the first real pothole on their road back to respectability, but they still have the sixth-best record in the major leagues.

Who woulda thunk that three months ago?

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