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8 Upper

The Boys of Autumn

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/29/1999

The Great Orioles Winning Streak of 1999 ended, fittingly enough, as something of a footnote. After two weeks and two days of unblemished success, covering five teams, four cities, and one hurricane, the 13-game string broke Sept. 23 with a 9-6 loss to Oakland in the first game of a doubleheader—a fly-by series for both teams, scheduled on less than a week's notice. Down by the Oriole Park clubhouse, the hallway was packed with the home team's luggage. Up above, bathed in the golden light of sunset, the grandstands were three-quarters empty as Mike Bordick grounded to shortstop for the final out.

If they'd won, the '99 O's would have tied the team record for consecutive victories. Instead, by the end of the second game—a thumping 12-4 win fueled by four Albert Belle doubles—the memory was already fading. The lead local sports story the next morning was not the end of the winning streak, but the news that Cal Ripken had undergone successful and uneventful back surgery and should be ready to play again by Opening Day 2000.

Ripken, laid up in his hospital bed in Cleveland with 2,991 hits, seemed to embody the whole maddening could-have-been mood hanging over this year's Orioles. He could have gotten career-hit 3,000, but his back let him down. Mike Mussina could have won 20 games, but his luck went bad. And the team itself . . . well, its valiant run in September was mainly a reminder of what it should have been doing when it was staggering through April and May.

But it's worth remembering that the Orioles failed to live down to their potential too. In the spring they looked like the most embarrassingly overpaid flop in baseball history, but the woeful Los Angeles Dodgers (built by ex-O's assistant general manager Kevin Malone and skippered by ex-O's manager Davey Johnson) plummeted past them by midsummer, and they did it with a higher payroll. The Orioles were supposed to be coasting on reputation, but aging veterans Ripken, Bordick, and B.J. Surhoff have put in some of the best work of their careers. And just as it seemed to settle passively into last place, the team turned around and fought back to the brink of .500.

Between games of the doubleheader, someone asked manager Ray Miller if the September hot streak made him wonder how things could have gone differently. "Does it make me wonder?" Miller said, wearily. "Yeah." The team, he went on, had a good offense all year, and a good defense, and good starting pitching. "One thing we've been short on," he said, "is relief pitching."

Miller, whose end-of-the-season firing is suddenly in doubt again, was fudging his autopsy report a bit. The starting pitching started out godawful, paced by Scott Erickson's appalling 1-8 beginning. The offense flickered, stranding men on base in bunches. The defense was inert. Someone in an honest and unkind mood might point out to Miller that his strategic planning and execution—reliable bullpen or no—was consistently idiotic, bordering on suicidal.

Yet all that misses the point too. The Orioles are neither a good team that started badly nor a bad team that's ending well. Every year under the Peter Angelos administration the question has been phrased in the same static terms: Is this team a success, or is it a failure? Should the front office stick with the program or dump players and start over? The veterans favor the former. This is a good team, they tell the press; we should keep it together.

But what the winning streak showed is that the transition is already underway. The team that left Florida at the end of March has already fallen apart, done in by age, failure, and incompetent construction. The September Orioles are winning because Will Clark is on the disabled list, Juan Guzman is in Cincinnati, and Mike Fetters has slid to the back of the bullpen. They're winning because Brady Anderson moved over to let Eugene Kingsale play center field, and because Delino DeShields has given way to Jerry Hairston Jr. at second base.

Hairston was rumored to be a hot prospect last season, but management lost its nerve over the winter and brought in the free agent DeShields. Watching the rookie now, you wonder just how dense the front office can possibly be. A third-generation major-leaguer, Hairston has more polish now, at the age of 23, than 30-year-old DeShields. He fields his position like an all-star. His batting average is only middling so far, but he is a crafty and stubborn hitter. In the eighth win of the streak—a rout of the A's—it was a two-out walk by Hairston, in a masterful at bat, that broke the starting pitcher's nerve and got the offense rolling.

Not all the young Orioles have demonstrated their skills quite so overwhelmingly. But there are signs. In the second game of the Sept. 23 doubleheader, big first baseman Calvin Pickering, mysteriously benched for most of the month, celebrated his first start by hitting a double and a monster home run, scoring three runs, and doing a full split at first to nab a throw from the outfield. Utility man Jesse Garcia—who can do anything Jeff Reboulet does, only quicker and better—laid down a pair of perfect bunts. The autumn spree might not mean that this new crop of players will be ready to beat the Yankees next season. But it does mean they're ready to try.

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