Strictly business

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Spring training went by so fast, I didn't even get the license plate.

It seems like only yesterday I arrived at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and discovered that someone had kidnapped cuddly little Sam Perlozzo and replaced him with the new, improved Tough Sammy.

How tough? I heard a rumor that when Sidney Ponson came to town with the Minnesota Twins, he was so intimidated that he didn't have his first beer until the fourth inning.

OK, that was just plain wrong, but the new Sammy clearly was focused on making sure the Orioles did not leave a fundamental stone unturned during the early weeks of spring training.

There were extra defensive drills, more hands-on instruction and less goofing around - except around Kevin Millar's locker. It was made pretty clear to everyone that 70 victories isn't going to make it this year.

Serious Sam ran a serious camp, which was surprisingly devoid of the kinds of distractions that made the Orioles the capital of clubhouse calamity a couple of seasons ago.

The biggest setback of the spring was the arm soreness that persuaded starting pitcher Kris Benson to undergo rotator cuff surgery, but the Orioles had prepared for that possibility at the outset with the signing of veteran starter Steve Trachsel. The club also lost outfielder Jay Payton to a hamstring strain last week, but he shouldn't miss more than a week or two of the regular season.

The biggest off-field controversy was the Albany, N.Y.-based steroid/human growth hormone investigation that soiled the reputations of former Orioles Gary Matthews Jr. and Jerry Hairston Jr., but this one didn't touch any current Orioles, which had to be considered progress after Rafael Palmeiro became the first big-name major league player to test positive for steroids in 2005 and several Orioles allegedly were named in the infamous Jason Grimsley affidavit last year.

In short, it was a pretty dull six weeks to be a reporter in Fort Lauderdale, unless you were covering the Anna Nicole Smith case.

I'm sure the Orioles were fine with that. The organization is trying to turn a corner after nine straight losing seasons, so Job One was to shake the widespread notion that the franchise is a simmering caldron of dysfunction. The best way to do that is to stay out of the headlines.

So, while Alex Rodriguez was trying way too hard to get real over at Legends Field in Tampa, Miguel Tejada was back to being the happy-go-lucky little shortstop who barely showed up in print.

And while the Los Angeles Angels were trying to get a straight answer out of Matthews in the wake of the Albany scandal, Brian Roberts was getting questions about his new contract extension instead of the year-old allegation that his name was linked to the Grimsley mess.

Ponson did drop by Fort Lauderdale Stadium to pitch several solid innings and take a few potshots at the Orioles and their fans, but even that failed to register more than a blip on the bad public relations meter. I guess when one of the dumbest guys on the planet calls you clueless, it's almost a compliment.

Indeed, uneventful is not necessarily a bad thing. The Orioles spent the spring under the radar, but not for lack of any positive developments.

Their three top young starters wasted little time getting comfortable in the spring rotation, which was a major factor in the club's eight-game unbeaten string early in the exhibition season.

The promising combination of Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen is the X-factor that could make the Orioles competitive in the American League East this year. Nothing they did during the spring argued against that possibility, though that's a lot to put on the shoulders of three pitchers at this early stage in their development.

The emergence of right fielder Nick Markakis was one of the highlights of last season, and his terrific performance at the plate the past four weeks has eased any concern about a sophomore jinx.

The bullpen has been revamped after losing 18 games in which the Orioles were leading or tied after the sixth inning, creating an area in which solid improvement can be translated directly into the won-lost record.

It's not all good - the offense slipped into a major funk midway through the exhibition season - but there is enough potential to create hope for a brighter tomorrow. That's about all you can ask when you're competing in the gridlocked AL East.

The Orioles clearly are not an elite team, so Perlozzo will have to squeeze every ounce of production out of his roster to put a scare into any of the top three teams in the division. He knew that coming in, and he is taking the challenge very seriously ... even if nobody else seems to be taking his team very seriously this year. recently listed the Orioles as one of baseball's four most hopeless franchises, which is a fairly common opinion since the O's have not had a winning season since the 1990s. Changing that opinion is going to take more than a clenched jaw and a new attitude, but everything seems possible in the spring.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad