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Frankly Speaking

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/22/2005

Despite the risk of a Mitch Albom goof, I have no reservations in writing (on June 17) that the Baltimore Orioles are, the day this paper is released, still leading the American League East division. That’s the good news for O’s fans: Even Jim Hunter, the cheerleading Orioles broadcaster who Sun columnist Peter Schmuck tweaks every other week, wouldn’t have predicted the team’s rather stunning success so far this season. It’s no surprise Miguel Tejada is having another MVP-worthy year, or that Melvin Mora and B.J. Ryan are playing clutch ball, and Brian Roberts still hasn’t had a prolonged slump after his eye-opening first month. Sammy Sosa’s kind of a bust, but no one—aside from Hunter and maybe Schmuck’s colleague Laura Vecsey—expected much from his creaky bat.

The flip side of this strange occurrence—at least for the last seven years—is that the Birds still haven’t separated themselves more decisively from the Red Sox and Yankees, the two wealthy clubs everyone assumed would be atop the standings in late June. Because Baltimore is in first place, it seems rather churlish to complain about manager Lee Mazzilli or the general manager tandem of Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, but I’m still betting the Sox or Yanks will top the O’s by October (and the wild-card playoff team looks almost certain to be Minnesota, Chicago, or Texas) and the blame will have to be heaped on those three passive men.

There’s a lot of chatter about the team’s “chemistry,” which is natural when you’re winning, but does anyone doubt that the O’s would be leading the East by six games if Washington’s Frank Robinson was manager and Boston’s Theo Epstein was in charge of acquiring spare parts from non-contending teams? Lord knows Orioles owner Peter Angelos didn’t open his wallet during the off-season, and he’s no pauper—as if any franchise owner is, protests to the contrary—so Flanagan and Beattie have the means to find a starting pitcher before the Yanks and Sox do.

On June 15, Sun columnist John Eisenberg floated the notion of obtaining Jason Schmidt from the floundering Giants, which if the pitcher is healthy might guarantee a title, along with maybe one of the Pirates’ relievers. But when Eisenberg asked Beattie, “Do you need to make a big move?” the co-GM “quickly” said no.

As for Mazzilli, the normally clueless Vecsey—she’s in favor of Congress getting involved in Major League Baseball’s drug testing, like presidential candidate John McCain and fellow headline grabbers don’t have better things to do—was right on target earlier this month by slapping around the pacifist O’s manager. Baltimore had just lost a game to Boston—Ryan, in one of his few bad outings, gave up a walk-off homer to David Ortiz—and Vecsey questioned Mazzilli’s intensity.

The columnist correctly complained that the O’s skipper rarely gets into a dirt-kicking argument with an umpire, even when he’s convinced that a call went against the team. Robinson wouldn’t do that; Earl Weaver certainly wouldn’t. She wrote: “A show of anger, a show of commitment to your troops, is a signal to everyone that you won’t be pushed around.”

Robinson’s well-publicized fight last week during a Nationals-Angels game with his counterpart, Mike Scioscia, over the latter’s reliever Brendan Donnelly putting pine tar in his glove is just one reason why the Nationals are in first place in the National League East and the coolest baseball story so far this season. The club still has no owner, no superstars, no offense, but nevertheless they’re winning. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, whose schoolgirl crush on the Nationals is a bit unseemly for a writer of his caliber, nevertheless captured the essence of the Nats’ unlikely winning season thus far.

He wrote on June 16: “No wonder the Nationals play with [Robinson’s] heart and fire. The day they don’t, they know he’s out the door. He stays because he loves the way they play. And they play the way they do to see that pride in his eyes. Without him, the notion of nine straight come-from-behind wins in one home stand would be utter nonsense. Without him, the idea of being in first place with a team that has been outscored by the league would be ludicrous.”

Mazzilli’s a greenhorn compared to Robinson, who’s almost 70, a veteran manager, and a Hall of Famer, and so the comparison isn’t quite fair. Still, when the pennant race really heats up in August and September, assuming the team doesn’t tank before then, it’ll take more than a three-run homer by Tejada or shutout by the mysterious Bruce Chen to consistently keep the squad on the adrenaline rush they’ll need to win a postseason berth. A little of Robinson’s “heart and fire” from Mazzilli, Flanagan, and Beattie could make the difference.

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