Orioles raised fans' hopes, then dashed them

The Baltimore Sun

On Thursday at Camden Yards, Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie turned in a gutty performance in his early return from the oblique injury that had cut short his excellent rookie season. Guthrie got help from the bat and glove of September call-up Luis Hernandez.

The Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays, and as determined as you are to put them aside until next spring, if even then, you couldn't help but get that feeling. The next No. 2 starter and maybe the next shortstop - if they're the real thing, if this holds up, then maybe the Orioles can ...

There they go. The Orioles are teasing us again. Got us thinking about "the real thing." A lot has looked like the real thing this season, for a week, a month, two-thirds of the season. But we know - and if we forget, something reminds us - that what we think we see with this organization is never what's real.

This afternoon, the Orioles conclude their season against the New York Yankees, ending their 10th straight losing campaign and what might be their biggest string of teases ever. Until a couple of days ago, they threatened to finish with the worst record in baseball, and only the most bitter of pessimists could have envisioned that at any previous point this season. But the Orioles have developed a knack for making pessimists of everybody, and they are steadily driving them to cynicism and, finally, fatalism.

You watch this many mirages disappear in this short a time and you can't help but become a fatalist, completely devoid of faith.

The most obvious? In the first 54 games of Dave Trembley's managerial reign, the Orioles went 29-25. They played hard and smart. Trembley pushed all the right buttons, and the housecleaning that brought in him and Andy MacPhail (and swept out Sam Perlozzo) seemed like genius. Trembley was "the right fit," MacPhail said as he announced Trembley was returning for next season. He and the new president were "on the same page," Trembley said as he emotionally accepted.

That was Aug. 22. We know what happened later that night, or do you need 30 reminders? And you know what has happened since. The euphoria, the optimism, was so real, then suddenly not so real.

That's only the biggest mirage. The starting rotation that had been the target of all the moves and development in previous years, and supplemented by offseason deals, faded in a haze of injuries. But here came Guthrie, a steal. Things weren't so bad, right?

Not until the bullpen suddenly couldn't hold a lead for him. Or anybody else. Like on Mother's Day in Boston. It started unraveling then, but it was logical to think that this couldn't be a regular occurrence. Wrong again.

But changing managers, that should do the trick. It worked for two months. Until Aug. 22.

Yet with all the mess elsewhere, there was still the shining light of the rotation, Erik Bedard, leading the majors in strikeouts, maturing into an ace, heading into Cy Young Award contention. Until he got hurt and was done for the season. Figures.

At least he's supposed to be back next season. Not so for Chris Ray, who's out all of next season. Ray was a leftover tease from 2006, when it seemed certain the Orioles didn't have to worry about a closer.

It just went on and on. If nothing else, fans could have reasonably expected their team to not be a laughingstock throughout baseball as well as late-night stand-up fodder. Nope, not even that. A 30-3 loss. A no-hitter. Eleven runs given up in an inning. Daniel Cabrera getting unhinged and suspended. Another Oriole (Jay Gibbons) in another performance-enhancer probe.

And in between, all the little teases, such as Brian Burres and Garrett Olson and now Luis Hernandez.

This season, it wasn't so much promise going unfulfilled or hopes being dashed; at this point, nobody's glasses are that rose-colored. But there were just so many times, more times than in recent memory (even during their brief run atop the division in 2005), that there were real reasons to believe in a sign here and a sign there that the franchise was on the right track.

Yet every time such a sign appeared, it disappeared just when it became most believable.

It still says here that Trembley and MacPhail are the right men at the right time, but they must know they have no right to expect anyone to believe it until they produce some concrete, long-term, nonillusory results.

Until then, the remaining faithful retain the right to not believe what they're seeing. And that makes even the most positive and encouraging signs all the more frightful. Such as Guthrie and Hernandez - and Nick Markakis. Nothing in this organization seems more promising than his future.

But as things are going this season, Markakis is just promising enough to break our hearts. Or to fulfill his promise in right field for the Yankees.

Promising enough to make us say, a few years from now: "Man, I would have sworn that guy was the real thing."


David Steele -- Points after

You knew that now-suspended umpire Mike Winters had to have said something completely out of line for baseball to take Milton Bradley's side.

Ralph Friedgen should send Mike Gundy a fruit basket. Had the Oklahoma State coach not gone ballistic in his post-game news conference last week, Maryland's collapse at Wake Forest would have received a lot more national airtime.

Good for Gundy for going to such extreme lengths to "stick up for his players," as his defenders insist. And good for Stephen Jackson, when he went into the stands in Auburn Hills in 2004, to "stick up for his teammates." Right? Same motivation? Same justification? Isn't it?

One player who will never, ever be accused of "sticking up for her teammates": U.S. women's soccer goalie Hope Solo.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is also "delighted" to receive this item for its collection: the ball from Gaylord Perry's 300th win, with the Valvoline logo printed on it.

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