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Benchwarmer

Macro and Micro

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 9/7/2005

The Orioles have not won a World Series in more than 20 years. The franchise is wandering through the wilderness without a fixed plan—or, more to the point, it seems to be working with a Trapper Keeper full of busted plans. The oft-repeated phrase “Oriole Way” has become synonymous with “half-assed.” Two recent examples of bad management, one micro, the other macro, demonstrate the depths to which the Orioles have plummeted.

On Aug. 29, the Orioles lay face down and spread-eagled, like a fraternity pledge bracing for impact. In fact, the team was on the tail end of a 1-5 home stand, about to be swept in a four-game series by the air-tight juggernaut of Billy Beane’s Moneyball-espousing Oakland Athletics.

Knock Moneyball all you want, but at least it is a plan, and the A’s are sticking to it. They’ve managed four trips to the postseason in the past five years, and they’re in contention for another, after trading two-thirds of the Cy Young-caliber “Big Three” in their rotation. All this with a nickel-and-dime budget, some savvy deals, and quality draft picks.

During the game in question, the Orioles began showing signs of life. Down early, the O’s battled, pulling even, with a golden opportunity to take the decisive lead in the eighth inning. With runners on first and third and nobody out, catcher Sal Fasano sent a shot up the middle. Oakland, with no choice but to concede the run, fielded cleanly and focused its efforts on turning two.

Only the Orioles didn’t score. Luis Matos, the pinch runner on third base, who was brought in for his speed, stood frozen, watching the American League’s best defense make easy work of the ground ball. Now stuck on third with two outs, Matos was stranded when Brian Roberts couldn’t connect for a base hit. Third-base coach Rick Dempsey—supposedly a champion of the fabled Oriole Way—took credit for advising Matos not to run. Dempsey is new to the third-base coach’s box. Its former tenant, new bench coach Tom Trebelhorn, now sits in the O’s dugout. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

This simple lapse—whether it was Dempsey’s or Matos’ or Perlozzo’s—cost the team the game. As Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez said afterward, “We felt like we were playing with house money when they failed to run home on that ball.” In the 12th inning, the A’s cashed in with five runs off beleaguered reliever Jorge Julio, aka Armando II.

The macro error happened back in July, before the trading deadline. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but as the Orioles engaged in trade discussions with the then-scuffling Florida Marlins for starter A.J. Burnett, few people thought holding pat was the best idea. Even at its worst, this deal smelt of success. The Orioles would have solidified their rotation for the remainder of the season, and Burnett would have filed for free agency in 2006. Looking at the rogue’s gallery of bait that was on the table—a combination of Sidney Ponson, Jorge Julio, Steve Kline, and, along with good guys Larry Bigbie and sometime minor leaguer Hayden Penn—it appears that the Orioles would have come out with the better deal. Hell, the O’s would have gotten the better end even if they had thrown in Sammy Sosa with a set of steak knives.

Closing the Burnett deal would have accomplished a few things off the field. First, it would have pre-emptively cut out a few malignant tumors from the clubhouse, making Julio, Kline, and Ponson someone else’s projects. Second, it would have boosted morale and built on the winning attitude that infected the clubhouse the first half of the season. Third, it would have shown the Yankees and Red Sox that the Orioles were willing to fight to contend for the top spot. It would have proved that the Orioles are capable of making significant proactive deals to improve the team. The Orioles would have been active players in a competitive division, shedding their image as too deliberate and gun-shy.

Fears that Burnett would flee in the offseason could have been quelled once he arrived in Baltimore. Had he pitched well he would have become part of something significant in Baltimore. His wife is from Bowie. He may have considered re-signing here. Instead, as the O’s floundered, the Marlins cruised into the thick of the National League East race (and by extension, the NL wild card) thanks partially to Burnett’s 8-3 performance since late June.

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Benchwarmer archives

More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Choker’s Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

Fraught With Terrell (8/17/2005)
As the Ravens suffered a late-season flame-out, unprecedented in the Brian Billick era, the Owens debacle remained a festering sore spot.

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