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baseball '09

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Birds of a feather: With a young stable of prospects, this team has a shining example within the division

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / April 5, 2009
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They were the standard of excellence. They touted "the Oriole Way," cultivating Hall of Fame ballplayers and big-league managers. They routinely won 90 games on the strength of good decisions and a fertile farm system.

Not anymore. Today they are the bottom-feeding Birds, universally picked to finish last in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles have played sub-.500 baseball for 11 consecutive seasons, plummeting to the cellar last summer with a record of 68-93, a whopping 28 1/2 games out of first place.

They get no respect in today's AL East. The Yankees have the $200 million payroll, the new stadium, the half-billion winter spending spree, and expectations of a return to glory. The Red Sox have a Nation that's gone global and a team expected to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Rays are coming off 97 wins and a World Series appearance. The Jays are sleepers who enjoyed a terrific second half in 2008.

They are the Four Tops in the AL East.

The Orioles? They are the "Once-Proud Orioles." Ain't too proud to beg.

"It's very hard," says second baseman Brian Roberts, Baltimore's best player. "It's been a long, long drought and it gets frustrating. But the game is very cyclical. You go through good stretches and bad stretches unless you are spending $200 million every year. There's only a handful of teams that can keep that up.

"When I was in the Cape League in 1998, you'd drive to a Red Sox game and nobody was there, so there's no telling where we will be five years from now.

"I wouldn't have signed an extension if I didn't think it was going to happen here. There's only so much you can commit to. I don't care about the money and everything else. You've got to feel like you've got a chance to win eventually, and I feel that way."

"Oriole fans understand," says general manager Andy MacPhail, who lived in Baltimore when the Orioles were building baseball's model organization. "Maybe it's the close proximity of all the minor league teams. The fans here understand that they had their best teams when they had a productive and strong farm system. Every piece of feedback I get is that they understand and they're in. They understand that this is what is required. And we have the added benefit of the Rays last year showing that it does work."

Decades of dominance
The Orioles came to Baltimore from St. Louis (Browns) in 1954. The innovative Paul Richards was the club's first general manager, and he yielded to Lee MacPhail in 1958. That was 5-year-old Andy MacPhail's introduction to Oriole baseball.

"My first memory is sitting behind the plate in the first row at Memorial Stadium and I remember Jim Gentile, Jerry Adair, Gus Triandos, Brooks Robinson, Albie Pearson," says the GM. "That was my team growing up."

Lee MacPhail's last act as Baltimore GM was to put the wheels in motion for a trade with the Cincinnati Reds that delivered Frank Robinson to Baltimore. It was a little like Red Auerbach bringing Bill Russell to Boston.

Robinson came to the American League in 1966, won the Triple Crown in his first year, and led the Orioles to a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers (20-year-old Jim Palmer beat Sandy Koufax in Koufax's final game) in the World Series.

For the next two decades, Baltimore was baseball's model franchise.

The Orioles had brilliant leadership in general managers Harry Dalton, Frank Cashen, and Hank Peters. They developed big-league managers: Earl Weaver, Billy Hunter, Jim Frey, George Bamberger, Cal Ripken Sr., Joe Altobelli, and Frank Robinson himself.

Then there were the Hall of Famers. Brooks Robinson (Mr. Oriole). Frank. Palmer. Eddie Murray. And Cal Ripken Jr.

When the AL and NL broke into divisions, the Orioles dominated the new AL East. In the first three years of division play (1969-71), Weaver's Orioles finished first three times, winning 109, 108, and 101 games. Baltimore went 9-0 in the first three AL Championship Series. They finished first five times in the first six years of the AL East.

The advent of free agency hit Baltimore hard in the '70's, but the Orioles stayed aloft on the strength of their farm system. They won 88 or more games in every nonstrike season between 1968-83.

Catcher Rick Dempsey was MVP of the 1983 World Series when the Orioles closed the curtain on their two decades of dominance. He has seen the erosion of the franchise from his positions as an Oriole coach and broadcaster.

"It was a lot of fun back in those days," says Dempsey. "We didn't care back then. We didn't care about the Yankees or Red Sox. We cared about playing well together and we had a manager who was tough as nails. If you could beat Earl Weaver, you could beat any team in baseball.

"It just seems like we were a lot more in the mix in those days. We've gone through some hard times over the last couple of years. There's been a lot of transition and turnover. They're still trying to find it, but everybody is moving in the right direction."

Maybe. But the Orioles are a mess. And they are playing in the toughest division in baseball.

Inspiration in Tampa
The AL East has been rough on the Orioles before. They won 100 games in 1980 and failed to make the playoffs. In 1977, they won 97 games and finished 2 1/2 games out of the postseason.

But this is different. In 2009, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays know it's possible to win 95 and not make it to October. In Baltimore, they would settle for .500. And it's not going to happen.

The last time the Orioles won more games than they lost was 1997, when Davey Johnson's team won the division with 98 victories. That team blew up under the weight of Johnson's feud with owner Peter Angelos, and the Orioles have gone under.

They've made bad trades and bad investments in free agents. They've had bumbling managers (remember Sam Perlozzo lifting Jeremy Guthrie in the pitch-count debacle at Fenway on Mothers Day 2007?) and bumbling general managers to go with their bumbling players and bumbling owner.

MacPhail, a two-time World Series winner with the Twins, and leader of the Cubs for 12 years, was brought on board in June of 2007. His mission is to restore the old magic, building from the bottom. Like a lot of basement-dwellers, the Orioles are inspired by the Rays.

"Tampa has given us a nice road map," says MacPhail. "If you look at their progression from 2007 to 2008, their run production actually went down, but they made such vast improvement in their pitching and defense that they jumped 31 games in the standings.

"That should be the focus of our franchise. We're going to need to pitch well and catch the ball. I don't think we can go toe for toe, trying to outslug teams like the Yankees or teams that have $225 million payrolls. That's just not going to happen. We're going to have to do it a different way, and I think Tampa showed you that that can be successful in the AL East or anywhere."

Playing in the AL East compounds the problem. In mid-August of last season, the Orioles were a mere three games under .500. Then came a stretch of games against the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and Jays.

"We played them seven times apiece and went 4-24," says MacPhail. "We had injuries like everybody else, but we did not have the depth to compensate.

"I think the American League East had a .580 winning percentage outside the division. There's no question it's the best division, and that's all right. It's not an excuse for losing. We just have to deal with it. It's not going to change any time soon, and Tampa showed us it can be done."

A challenge ahead
The Orioles plan to do it with pitching prospects and the finest young catcher in the game. The kid hurlers are Chris Tillman (11-4, 3.18 at Double A), Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz, but they probably will not help immediately ("Come see these guys in two or three years," says Orioles minor league manager Richie Hebner).

Meanwhile, they'll make do with Guthrie and Koji Uehara (eight-time Japanese All-Star). Immortals named Mark Hendrickson, Adam Eaton, and Alfredo Simon round out the rotation. All-Star closer George Sherrill saved 31 games last season - not bad for a team that won only 68 games.

The Orioles' future is in the hands of 22-year-old switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters, considered the top prospect in baseball. Drafted out of Georgia Tech, he has played only 130 minor league games, and MacPhail says he'll resist the pressure to rush him to the big leagues. Cynics suspect the Orioles are merely protecting themselves against Wieters's eventual arbitration eligibility. Veteran Gregg Zaun will keep the seat warm until Wieters is promoted.

The lineup staples are Adam Jones, Roberts, Aubrey Huff, Nick Markakis, Luke Scott, and Melvin Mora. It won't be enough firepower for those games against the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox.

"Everybody would say this is the toughest division in baseball," says Roberts. "It's a tough position to be in, but that's part of the battle and that's OK. If you can do that as an organization, you've done your work. As players, we look at it as a challenge.

"You can spend all the money you want, but there's no guarantee you'll win a title. The way you want to build an organization is from within. When you look at the Red Sox, that's what they've done the last couple of years. And we feel like we're in a position to do that in the next couple of years."

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