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Losing Their Way Once famous for a philosophy and a farm system that produced winners, the Orioles now feature quick fixes, bad chemistry and the American League's worst record

April 26, 1999
April 26, 1999

Table of Contents
April 26, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Losing Their Way Once famous for a philosophy and a farm system that produced winners, the Orioles now feature quick fixes, bad chemistry and the American League's worst record

Paul Richards, the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles soon
after their relocation from St. Louis in 1954, once wrote down
the tenets of the organization's philosophy of how baseball
should be taught and played. The unpublished manuscript came to
be known as the Oriole Way, a sort of old testament to the
fundamentals that would help the club produce, among other
things, the game's richest farm system for about 20 years. In the
Oriole Way, for instance, a relay from the outfield was a
synchronized ballet among teammates so familiar with it and one
another that they could run it flawlessly in the dark.

This is an article from the April 26, 1999 issue

Cal Ripken Sr., a loyal player, coach, manager and scout in the
organization for 36 years, added his own colloquies to
Richards's doctrine until his retirement in 1992. Last winter,
while in the final days of his fight with lung cancer, Ripken
committed his accumulated wisdom to paper. When one of his good
days would interrupt the run of bad ones, Ripken would press on
with the writing of the book from his deathbed, telling his
co-author, SI senior editor Larry Burke, "Let's get on with it."

It was that book, published posthumously as The Ripken Way, that
Cal Ripken Jr. read on the Orioles' flight from New York to
Toronto early last Friday morning. "It's amazing," the son said.
"I thought I knew my father really well. But there are things in
the book about him--what he felt about the game--that I never
knew."

Having seen what's become of the Orioles, and even of Cal Ripken
Jr., the very paragon of Baltimore baseball, you expect The
Ripken Way to appear on faded papyrus. That's how far removed
from its franchise roots this team seemed to be last week as
Baltimore lost six of seven games to the New York Yankees and
the Toronto Blue Jays. Where once the farm system was the
Orioles' lifeblood, now the team includes only four homegrown
products: Ripken and pitchers Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes and
Sidney Ponson. Also, 21 of the 25 players on the roster are 30
or older. This mad downward spiral, fueled by owner Peter
Angelos's Rotisserie-style management, left the American
League's second-most overhauled team (11 new players) also its
worst at week's end, with a 3-9 record.

After spending a major-league-high $74 million on player
salaries last year to win 79 games, the Orioles might be
hard-pressed to get a win-per-million return on their $84
million investment this year. The Oriole Way? It's history.
Ancient history.

Ripken remains the symbol of the franchise, only now it's
because of his creaky performance in the field and at bat--where
he has adopted a stance so unsightly it looks like a charades
player doing an interpretation of a broken tripod. Last Friday
in Toronto, Ripken was benched by his manager for the first time
since May 29, 1982, a development that provoked an unusual
reaction from the Iron Man: concession. "I have been pressing,"
he said, agreeing with the assessment of Ray Miller, who gave
him the night off.

Ripken missed eight days of spring training to be with, and then
help bury, his father. He suffered back spasms on Opening Day
that kept him out of the next two games and limited his normally
heavy workouts at bat and in the field. At week's end he was
hitting .179 and had as many errors as hits (five) and as many
sacrifice bunts as runs batted in (two). The 117 hits he needs
for 3,000 and the 16 home runs for 400 are in doubt this year.
Even more telling than his stats was the faraway look in his
eyes as he folded his arms and leaned his back against his
locker at Yankee Stadium one day last week.

"It's like I'm in a fog," he said. "Every once in a while I get
this feeling, like a twang inside of me. Like at the viewing, I'd
see somebody and it would trigger a memory and I'd get this
feeling. It's hard to describe, but it's like something goes
twang in my stomach.

"It happens on the field. I'll be focused, and maybe it's an
umpire in the fifth inning who has a story to tell me, a memory
of my dad. Then I feel it all over again. I've got to deal with
that. I realize how many people my dad touched in his life. I'm
always reminded of it, whether it's umpires, teammates or
opposing players--guys have said things while I've been on base.
People react to death in different ways. I don't have a lot of
experience in dealing with this. It hasn't been easy."

Some of the many expatriates of the Angelos regime believe that
Ripken's famous steely resolve has softened without the daily
influences of his father and the Streak, the
consecutive-games-played record he ended willingly at 2,632 last
Sept. 20. It can't help that the team around him has been
cobbled together with so many new parts and with seemingly so
little planning. For instance, Angelos and new general manager
Frank Wren--the third Orioles G.M. in 36 months--needed only
five days in December to acquire half of their every-day
starting players. They traded for catcher Charles Johnson and
signed three free agents: first baseman Will Clark, second
baseman Delino DeShields and rightfielder Albert Belle.

"There's a higher level of execution when you have familiarity
with the players around you," Ripken said. "You hear it with a
shortstop-second base combination, but it relates to all aspects
of the game."

During a 1-5 stretch beginning on April 11, the Orioles
sabotaged themselves with a botched rundown between third and
home; a two-out, two-strike wild pitch that broke an
eighth-inning tie; a dropped toss from a first baseman to a
pitcher not expecting a throw while covering first base; a
passed ball caused when the pitcher misread a sign from the
catcher; and another wild pitch that made possible a
game-breaking two-run single.

"It especially hurts because we're playing teams in our
division," says Mussina, who started all three games that
Baltimore had won. "Toronto is better than last year. Tampa Bay
should score 50 to 100 more runs just by adding [Jose] Canseco.
We haven't seen Boston yet, but if the Red Sox keep pitching
like they have been, they're going to be good. We're just not
playing well. The thing is, there is no question that we have
better pitching than we're showing."

Each defeat is preceded and followed by a cool calm in the
Baltimore clubhouse, with only the frequent chirping and buzzing
of cell phones and pagers and the clacking of cards in cribbage
games interrupting the placidity. Emotions such as anger and
frustration are not evident on this veteran team; the players
know that the long season (not to mention 18 straight games,
starting this week, against teams that had losing records last
year) is their ally. Of course, this particular veteran team is
so aged it ought to travel not in a team bus but in a Crown
Victoria doing 50 mph in the left-hand lane with its turn signal
perpetually on.

"That's bulls---," snaps Angelos about his reputation for
disregarding younger players, though the evidence doesn't
support the accomplished attorney. The most significant change
of the Angelos era occurred in July 1996, when general manager
Pat Gillick told Angelos he had two deals in place that would
make the underachieving Orioles younger and more athletic: He
could, in essence, trade outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who was
eligible for free agency at the end of the season, to the
Cleveland Indians for outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, and send
lefthander David Wells, another potential free agent, to the
Seattle Mariners for catcher Chris Widger and two minor league
prospects. Gillick argued that the Orioles needed to "change the
age of the club" and strive for a better mix of veterans and
young players.

Angelos killed both deals. He insisted that the frequent sellout
crowds at Camden Yards required him to put forth the best
possible team, age be damned. The Orioles rallied to win the
American League wild card and beat Cleveland in the Division
Series. Angelos was vindicated and emboldened. Gillick's
appetite for the job was never the same. Says another former
Orioles insider, "The problem is, they have so many selfish,
egotistical people in upper management who think they know more
about baseball than Branch Rickey."

Angelos's six years of ownership have been distinguished not
only by the failure to stop the franchise's longest run without
a World Series appearance (15 years and counting) but also by a
brain drain. He has lost such respected baseball minds as
Gillick, Kevin Malone, Doug Melvin, Johnny Oates and Davey
Johnson. Those departures seem all the more important because of
the key baseball people he has in place for the time being:
Wren, who has yet to distinguish himself in his first major
league G.M. job, and Miller, who is failing for the second time
as a manager.

At week's end Miller's career record, including a brief stint
with the Minnesota Twins in the mid-'80s, was 191-222. His
strength is thought to be his knowledge of pitching, gleaned
from 18 years as a highly successful pitching coach, eight of
them with the Orioles. But Baltimore's greatest weakness this
season has been on the mound. Other than Mussina (2-0, 2.45
ERA), the starting pitchers were 0-6 with an 8.24 ERA through
Sunday, while throwing only 43 2/3 innings in nine games.
Righthander Scott Erickson (0-2), a sinkerball pitcher who
throws best with regular work, made both of his starts on five
days of rest instead of the usual four--in part because Miller
started him in an exhibition game in Cuba before the season
opener. "Scotty's ticked off because the game in Cuba threw him
off," says one Oriole. "What's more important? Winning an
exhibition game or making sure you're ready to start the season?
Their priorities were wrong."

Still, it's too early to declare the Orioles a lost cause. Belle
has been productive in the early going (three homers, 12 RBIs),
as was Clark until he broke his left thumb fielding a ground
ball on Sunday. (He's expected to be placed on the 15-day
disabled list.) And the Orioles do have a few intriguing
prospects who are close to being ready for the majors, such as
first baseman Calvin Pickering, third baseman Ryan Minor and
infielders Jesse Garcia and Jerry Hairston. (Their best
prospects, lefthander Matt Riley and catcher Jayson Werth, are
only 19.) "My baseball people advised me they would be better
off with a year in Triple A before they come to the major
leagues," Angelos says. "There's no rush."

Angelos insists that he is willing to pay whatever it takes to
field a competitive ball club. "All of the money my team earns
is spent on the field," he says. So while the St. Louis
Cardinals, for instance, were happy to let DeShields leave,
Angelos gave the lifetime .270 hitter $12.5 million over three
years. Reserves Rich Amaral, 37, and Jeff Reboulet, 35, have
multiyear contracts that pay them through next season, and
reliever Jesse Orosco, 42, has a contract that guarantees he'll
be paid through the year 2000.

The Orioles have spent all those millions on an inferior
team--one with poor range defensively; one so short on starting
pitching that Miller is desperate for the return of injured
35-year-old righthander Scott Kamieniecki, who has a lifetime
record of 48-51. In losses in Toronto last Friday and Saturday,
the Orioles pitched Ponson, Orosco and four journeymen--Ricky
Bones, Mike Fetters, Doug Linton and Heathcliff Slocumb--who
have worked for a total of 17 organizations since 1996. "I just
don't think it's a very good team," one rival general manager
says.

Says Angelos, whom the Baltimore press regularly skewers, "I
don't think you can make a judgment on the first 10 games. Some
people do. They think they need to write controversial items to
keep the fans interested."

Nonetheless, speculation about the firing of Miller, Angelos's
handpicked manager, has intensified. In Born to Play, his
autobiography published last week, former Orioles outfielder
Eric Davis blames an overwhelmed Miller for many of the team's
troubles last year. Another former Oriole, second baseman Robbie
Alomar, nearly fought with Miller last August during a clubhouse
meeting about players' skirting team rules. "I'm not the
problem," Alomar told the manager. "You're the problem." Since
then the Orioles have gone 13-30, including the weekend sweep by
youthful Toronto.

"They have some good young players and just enough veteran guys
to help them," Mussina says. "It's a good blend." His scouting
report on the Blue Jays dripped with unintended irony. That most
certainly is not the book on the Baltimore Orioles.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO Iron hands Ripken's double error last Thursday led to five unearned Yankees runs, but this time the Orioles prevailed.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Fundamental flaws Lack of familiarity has led to miscues like the bad throw produced by this mix-up between Mike Bordick (left) and Willis Otanez. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONOCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON An old story Once a symbol of the spirited New York Mets, Orosco is now a symbol of the aged and dispirited Orioles.

The O's Woes

The last time the Orioles won a world championship, in 1983,
they did it with a roster that included 11 players who were
products of Baltimore's minor league system. Thus they were
schooled in what was known as the Oriole Way. A look at this
year's club shows how the quick-fix mentality of trading
prospects and signing free agents, such as Albert Belle (left),
has changed the makeup of the team.

STARTERS HOW ACQUIRED

CF Brady Anderson Trade
SS Mike Bordick Free agent
1B Will Clark Free agent
RF Albert Belle Free agent
LF B.J. Surhoff Free agent
DH Harold Baines Trade
3B Cal Ripken Jr. Signed 1978
2B Delino DeShields Free agent
C Charles Johnson Trade

PITCHERS

SP Mike Mussina Signed 1990
SP Scott Erickson Trade
SP Juan Guzman Trade
SP Doug Linton Free agent
SP Sidney Ponson Signed 1993
RP Ricky Bones Free agent
RP Mike Fetters Free agent
RP Jesse Orosco Free agent
RP Arthur Lee Rhodes Signed 1988
RP Heathcliff Slocumb Free agent
RP Mike Timlin Free agent

BENCH

OF Rich Amaral Free agent
1B/OF Jeff Conine Trade
3B/OF Willis Otanez Waiver pickup
C Lenny Webster Free agent
INF Jeff Reboulet Free agent

"The problem is, they have so many egotistical people in upper
management who think they know more about baseball than Branch
Rickey."
Baltimore spent $84 million on an inferior team with no range on
defense and no pitching.