On, off field, O's wilt in August heat


IF CHARLES Dickens had sat in the Camden Yards press box as the Orioles' lamentable August unfolded, he would have written simply that "it was the worst of times, period."

August 2005 has been the best of times only for Sam Perlozzo, finally getting his long-deserved chance to manage the club.

Otherwise ... anyone got any air freshener? Phew.

As the news spread about Sidney Ponson's latest arrest on drunken-driving charges the other day, someone asked me on a radio talk show if this month was now the low point in Orioles history. I said I thought that was a little much. A season in which the club spent 62 days in first place can't be as bad as 1988, the year of the 0-21 start.

But you know what? This month is almost that bad. It's hard to remember a time when the Orioles' reputation was more tarnished.

Here's the short version of August in Birdland: Rafael Palmeiro's positive test for steroids is revealed. Palmeiro refuses to say how drugs got in his system. A losing streak reaches eight games. Manager Lee Mazzilli is fired. Congress investigates Palmeiro. Sammy Sosa's batting average drops to .221. A new losing streak reaches five games. Ponson is arrested for the third time in nine months, and the club prepares to part ways with a $22.5 million mistake.

Meanwhile, an eighth straight losing season seems inevitable, an interim manager is in charge, and the contracts of the main baseball decision-makers are up.

Other than all that, everything is just ducky.

Things are so bad even other teams are contributing to the Orioles' misery; the woeful Kansas City Royals recently lost just enough games in a row (19) to remind everyone that the Orioles were once that bad, but then ended their streak just in time to let the Orioles hang onto the league record for consecutive defeats.

T.S. Eliot, had he sat beside Dickens in the press box, would have written that August, not April, was the cruelest month.

It was the Orioles' traditional month for moving up when Earl Weaver managed; the time when the team overcame slow starts, came together and shot up in the standings.

But it will be remembered this year for Palmeiro's congressional finger-point being reduced to a Jay Leno joke, and for Ponson wearing his uniform pants as he relaxed with friends in a luxury box - during a game.

Actually, come to think of it, Ponson almost surely would be more useful to the team as a club-level greeter, shaking hands and spreading laughs. He could be a modern-day Aruban Joe Louis.

Miraculously, 31,186 fans per game have still come to Camden Yards during a month in which they have had to choke down an odious stew of defeat, dysfunction, deceit and disappointment. Salt and pepper, anyone?

Of course, fans usually tolerate losing as long as they see hope, realistically or otherwise. And the Orioles, just five games under .500 after last night's loss, are not entirely hapless.

But what fans can't stand - what causes them to turn away, sometimes permanently - is to be asked to root for players they don't like or respect.

It's time for the Orioles to take a stand. Let it be known that Ponson will never pitch for them again. And that Palmeiro will play elsewhere if he wants to come back. The sooner they clear out the major characters in this summer stock debacle, the better off they'll be.

True, the Ravens have paraded their share of convicted criminals and other lugnuts in front of the public without suffering. But there are differences. Jamal Lewis, unlike Palmeiro, 'fessed up and did his time. And the Ravens, unlike the Orioles, are a winning organization. They have their issues, but they have shown they know how to piece together a playoff contender, and they have rightly gained the public's trust.

The Orioles, at 118 games under .500 since Opening Day 1998, have done anything but. Thus, they have to trot out Cal Ripken again to change the story and generate good vibes as the trumpeted 10th anniversary of 2,131 nears.

Sure, bad times have visited before. There was a 98-loss season in 2001 and a 4-32 finish in 2002. There were the acquisitions of Glenn Davis and Albert Belle. Low points, all.

Through it all, a cadre of loyal fans have endlessly beseeched the club to do the right thing and put the name of the Orioles' hometown back on the front of the road jerseys, indicating that the team was from Baltimore.

Personally, after this month, I think it's fine if they just leave the name off.

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