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The Good Fight

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/1/1999

Sometimes, in sports, bad blood is a good thing. That was one of the reasons the Orioles gave for adding the surly likes of Will Clark and Albert Belle in the offseason -- a few dustups in the clubhouse, the hope was, might inspire the team to play better. It didn't work on the field, but the theory may be finding new life in the front office. Over the last weekend in August, manager Ray Miller and general manager Frank Wren feuded openly in the press, with Miller complaining about the shortage of good players and Wren complaining that the team was playing below its abilities.

Both men were right, in their own fashions: The Orioles are undertalented and underachieving. By now, that's beside the point. What matters is that even as Miller and Wren took their feud public, the Orioles were doing two promising and unprecedented things with their roster. First, on Aug. 27, they made a tough and unsentimental decision -- quite possibly the first unsentimental move of the Peter Angelos era -- by trading the beloved and productive Harold Baines to the Cleveland Indians. Then two days later, for the first time all season, they sent a center fielder out to play center field.

It was no fun to see Baines go. At least he has, as they say at funerals, gone to a better place -- first place in the American League Central Division, to be exact. Being Harold Baines, he marked his arrival in Cleveland by hitting a two-run single in his first at-bat, carrying the Indians to a 2-1 win. The same night, the Baines-less O's dropped a one-run decision to the Detroit Tigers. Nevertheless, Baines may end up making a more important contribution to the team he left than to the one he joined.

Baines' departure opened a space in the big-league lineup for Rochester center fielder Eugene Kingsale, the fleet-footed young Aruban. And the arrival of the 23-year-old Kingsale could be the most heartening thing that's happened to the Orioles all year. In the short term, it solves the team's most pressing defensive problem. In the long run, it represents the organization's first serious bid to do something about its future.

For defense alone, the team ought to have called up Kingsale long ago. Center field is, after catcher, the hardest defensive position to fake. The Orioles, with the aging Brady Anderson in center, have been faking it for two years now. In his tiff with Miller, Wren argued that the Orioles are first in the league in fielding. But what they actually lead in is fielding percentage. This means they make their defensive plays cleanly, but it says nothing about how many defensive plays they actually make.

Anderson is a perfect example. His fielding percentage, through this past Sunday, was a slick-looking .996 -- far ahead of Gold Glover Ken Griffey Jr.'s .976 percentage. Griffey had committed eight errors to Anderson's one. But Griffey also had five more outfield assists than Anderson, and 64 more putouts. That's 64 fly balls that landed in Griffey's glove while balls were dropping in front of Anderson for singles, or sailing to his left or right for doubles. Add in the immobile and out-of- position Belle in right field and you get a certifiable defensive crisis.

Still, it took till the end of August, 130 games into the season, for Kingsale to get the call to play center field. Like his fellow youngsters, Calvin Pickering and Jerry Hairston Jr., Kingsale has been a victim of the team's veterans-first policy, bottled up in the minors while the Rich Amarals and Jeff Reboulets of the world fill up the big-league roster. Between his first call-up in late 1996 and Sunday, Kingsale had accumulated a total of two major-league at-bats.

Belatedly, though, the Orioles seem to be figuring out that they need to give youth its due. Next season, Kingsale will be out of minor-league options, and the O's will need a center fielder. He should be in the lineup every day, adjusting to the majors. If this means stepping on Anderson's toes, then step away. The sooner the Orioles establish that someone other than Anderson belongs in center field, the sooner they can start deciding what to do about him and B.J. Surhoff. They're both valuable parts of the offense. Anderson has been one of the best leadoff men in the game, with a .420 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 31 stolen bases, and 91 runs scored through Aug. 30. Surhoff, batting third, has 25 homers and 94 RBI, and has been battling Yankees superstar Derek Jeter for the league lead in hits.

Unfortunately, both are left-handed, both are everyday players, and both belong in left field. The Orioles have spent the last six months ignoring this problem, and they've got the ruins of a season to show for it. With Kingsale in center and Baines in Cleveland, either Anderson or Surhoff can play left while the other plays designated hitter.

There's no more time to put it off. The Orioles have already floated the idea of re-signing Baines in the offseason. But if they're going to do that, they need to have places for him and Surhoff and Anderson. Surhoff could move to third base, but his infield glove work is shaky and Cal Ripken has dibs on the job. Ripken could move to first, but that would push Pickering back out of the lineup -- to say nothing of Will Clark, unless the O's wise up and ax him.

Few of these conflicts are new. As Miller said in his weekend tirade, they're the same problems the O's faced last offseason. Then, in the warm security of denial, the club papered over the problems. Now, amid the acrimony, they're out in the open again. If it takes front-office infighting to put things in clear view, the Orioles brass should have started squabbling in public a long time ago.

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