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8 Upper

Mr. Utility

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/10/2001

The most moving moment of Cal Ripken Jr.'s retirement ceremonies (besides the unveiling, three years too late, of the Cal Ripken Sr. memorial dugout plaque) was the part that came right before the game. Ripken sprinted from the dugout, followed by his teammates, and Jeff Conine, according to his custom, threw a long lob toward third base. Usually, Ripken would run under the ball and make an over-the-shoulder catch as the rest of the infield took their positions. This time, Conine overthrew it--an accident, he said later, but a useful one--and as Ripken ran it down, with his back to the infield, the 2001 Orioles went back in their dugout, and the 1981 Orioles, resplendent in white-panel cartoon-bird hats, poured out of the opposite dugout and took the field.

The lineup was the same as it was for Ripken's first start, Aug. 12, 1981, with an empty spot for the late Mark Belanger. But there was some confusion about the precise symbolism. Like many others, I took the team at first sight to be the World Champion 1983 Orioles. That's because, for the most part, it was. In '81, Ripken played third base beside Belanger; in '83, he played shortstop beside Todd Cruz. The rest of the old squad--Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Rick Dempsey, Ken Singleton, Gary Roenicke, Al Bumbry, Scott McGregor--was around for both seasons.

But who would sprint out of the dugout if anyone were to hold a reunion--say, 21 years from now, on Tim Raines Jr. Day--of the 2001 Orioles? The present O's, with nine players stashed on the 60-day disabled list, don't even have an identifiable roster, let alone a consistent lineup.

Which is why, for the second straight year, the Most Valuable Oriole is a player who doesn't have a proper position. Jeff Conine started 80 games at first base, but he wasn't the first baseman; David Segui was. Nor was Conine the right fielder, the left fielder, the third baseman, or the designated hitter. But at various times he started at all those positions too.

And just like rootless infield/outfielder Delino DeShields, last year's MVO, Conine was unquestionably the most productive player on the team. "He was our rock in the water," manager Mike Hargrove said, somewhat inartfully, after Conine's selection. In fact, everything else for the 2001 Orioles was a rock in the water, and Conine was the closest thing the skipper had to a navigational chart. The team could lose the first baseman to a bum knee, the left fielder to a broken wrist, the third baseman to a sore back--and Conine could fill in for any of them, and bat .300 while doing it.

Redoubtable as Conine was, though, that's not really what a team wants to see in its most valuable player. He was pressed into being the MVP because the Orioles didn't have anyone else--because they were not, in any useful sense, a team. They were, at best, a rough draft of a possible team. By September, they weren't even that.

After a season and a half, the Orioles' youth movement hasn't produced a single candidate who could challenge Conine as the team's best hitter. He missed being a unanimous MVO only because The Sun's Joe Strauss voted for Albert Belle, whose career ended in spring training with a degenerative hip condition. This was not only a nasty bit of kicking a man when he's down (I wonder how Joe Strauss would like it if he had to retire with a brain injury and City Paper named him Best Sportswriter because the daily paper was better without him); it was wrong in plain baseball terms. No matter how much it may have pleased sportswriters, Belle's absence hurt the Orioles. With him gone, and the fragile Segui felled by an entirely predictable injury, the O's had nothing resembling the heart of a major-league lineup.

And so we got Chris Richard flailing helplessly in the cleanup hole. Richard may be a decent hitter someday, but he was overmatched and useless under the pressure of batting fourth. Nor did Tony Batista, an all-but-random hacker, have any business backing Richard up in the fifth slot. Both may yet be major-league hitters, but neither is even close to being ready to carry a team.

Hargrove has accentuated the positive, comparing this squad to his Cleveland Indians of the early '90s, just before they bloomed. The young O's are learning, he says, and good things are happening below the surface. Maybe. But on the surface, this year looked awfully stagnant. Jerry Hairston Jr., in whom I put great stock, kept waving at eye-high fastballs. Brian Roberts had no clue how to work the count. Before he broke his wrist, Jay Gibbons looked fantastic, a thunderous raw slugger who seemed to be finding his way against big-league pitching. I want to assume he's going to keep hitting, but it's just as valid to assume he'll keep breaking his wrist.

The pitchers were no more reassuring. Josh Towers looked great, then he didn't, then he broke his finger slamming a dugout phone. Rick Bauer looked good, and he went 0-5. Willis Roberts and Jorge Julio will be powerful relievers if they can keep the ball in the park--but what hard-throwing youngster can't say the same?

The youth movement, so far, is having the opposite effect from what it was supposed to: The only things we've learning for sure are about the veterans. We know the Segui signing was a failure. We know Pat Hentgen's arm is worn out. We know Brady Anderson can't hit. And we know that Jeff Conine, age 35, can capably fill any hole in the lineup. And that there will be a lot of holes next year for him to fill.

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