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Ball Bust

By Russ Smith | Posted 12/14/2005

It’s not breaking news that Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan hasn’t made a dent in improving the team’s roster since the end of the World Series. Unless, of course, you believe the addition of LaTroy Hawkins and Ramon Hernandez guarantees a pennant.

It’s fun to blame owner Peter Angelos for what looks to be the ninth consecutive losing season in 2006, but at this point not everything can be attributed to the wealthy trial lawyer. Besides, it’s my suspicion that Angelos’ favored sport in the next 11 months will be causing as much mischief as possible in Maryland’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections.

Nevertheless, now that the O’s franchise player Miguel Tejada has expressed his wish to be traded to a team that might actually make the playoffs, you have to wonder how serious the falloff in attendance will be this summer at Camden Yards. (On Dec. 11, in an interview with Comcast SportsNet, Tejada fudged on the trade demand, but his unhappiness was still apparent.) Pretty steep, unless Flanagan is revived from his coma and completes at least a few major impact transactions in the next two months.

Angelos did get a shot in at Tejada, telling the Washington Post’s Jorge Arangure Jr., “He has only been here two years, so I don’t know what he’s talking about. . . . If [the lack of upgrades is] what his criticism is based on, it just shows he wouldn’t be a great general manager.” That should help change Tejada’s mind.

The Orioles hit a peak of paying customers in 1997 (3,711,132)—not coincidentally the last year the club won more than 79 games—and haven’t hit the 3 million mark since 2001. It’s not as if Camden Yards will be empty next year, but you have to wonder what the figures would be without the sell-out crowds each year attracted by the Yankees and Red Sox. Right now, my money is on Sam Perlozzo’s squad to finish last next year, behind the rejuvenated Devil Rays, and attendance at a spring game against, say, the Tigers, could dip below 10,000.

Here’s a harbinger of what Angelos and Flanagan are up against. Instead of a birthday party last August, my 11-year-son, Booker, asked if he could invite six of his friends to an O’s game early in the 2006 season, and when the schedule was announced recently, the April 9 contest against the Red Sox seemed perfect. Most kids, at least those interested in sports, love going to see MLB games, even if the teams are mediocre. Last weekend, Booker’s buddies, five of them O’s stalwarts, reported mild interest, one of them saying, “Oh sure, that might be kind of cool, even though the Orioles won’t win. Could we go see the Nationals instead?”

If the O’s lose the under-14 crowd, the enthusiastic Little Leaguers who know how many homers Jay Gibbons has hit, that’s a chunk of change down the tubes. It’s hard explaining to children that the team might as well prepare for 2007, as Sun columnist John Eisenberg (pre-Tejada bombshell), in a bout of frustration, suggested on Dec. 3.

Fans can be pissed at Tejada’s discontent, since he earns $12 million a year, but the All-Star shortstop isn’t known as a mercenary just out for the money. There’s no reason, for instance, why Flanagan couldn’t have been an active participant in the Marlins’ fire sale of the past month. The Red Sox traded for Josh Beckett, Guillermo Mota, and Mike Lowell in exchange for a bunch of prospects.

Hayden Penn may be a future Cy Young winner, but wouldn’t it have made sense for Flanagan to deal him and a few lesser minor-leaguers for Beckett, an established star who won’t be 26 until next May? The team offered Paul Konerko $65 million, but that was a pro forma offer, really, since his current club, the White Sox, wanted to re-sign him, and the Angels, another winner, were right behind. But Carlos Delgado, who wound up with the Mets, had no choice in his trade, and had Flanagan and his deputy Jim Duquette worked harder on reeling him in, it’s possible the Tejada crisis wouldn’t have come up.

The Sun’s Eisenberg and colleague Rick Maese have contradictory views of the shortstop’s surprise declaration. The former wrote (Dec. 10), “Bully for Miggy, who just couldn’t take it anymore, just couldn’t keep spouting the party line.” The latter, a newcomer to Baltimore, reacted differently the next day. While not contesting Tejada’s value to the team—who could?—he scolded the star for bad manners. “Where did [his] sense of professionalism go? The team defended Tejada at every turn last season . . . when his numbers and effort were noticeably lacking late in the season and when his overall demeanor took a turn for the worse.”

It doesn’t matter anymore. Flanagan now has a grand opportunity to deal Tejada for any number of elite players. If he does nothing, the Orioles could replace the Kansas City Royals as the laughingstock of Major League Baseball.

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