The Way Home
Dear Mr. Angelos,
First of all, I want to admit that I haven't been very polite to you in the past. I've written, in various other forums, hard things about your management style and your personnel decisions and the music at your ballpark. But this is a new column, so I'm hoping to start on a conciliatory note.
Besides, there doesn't seem to be much point in beating on you just now. It was one thing in '96, when you thought you'd built a contender and I thought you'd simply prolonged the agony of a moribund and tottering also-ran. But as the '98 playoffs roll Birdlessly along, I'm assuming we mostly agree about this season. I mean, 79-83? Clearly, something went very, very wrong here.
What stings most is how shockingly, embarrassingly irrelevant the Orioles were all season. One year after a wire-to-wire division title (which I thank you, Mr. Angelos, for your role in producing), the O's vanished. In a season of great individual deeds and great team accomplishments, they did nothing worth mentioning. Yes, they had a hot July. It was almost as impressive as what the Yankees did in May (and June and April and August). And the rest of the season, every time our lads got a whiff of the playoff race, they would roll over and go on a nine-game (or eight-game, or 10-game) losing streak.
The highlight of the entire season was, appropriately, a nonevent: Cal Ripken's decision to sit out a game and end the Streak. Not that an Oriole choosing not to play ball was exactly newsworthy this summer--Robbie Alomar, for one, quit playing in about May--but only Cal had the decency to actually scratch his name from the lineup.
I understand the temptation to blame bad luck. But looking back, the only real wanton abuse the baseball gods inflicted on the team was when Mike Mussina had his face rearranged by a line drive. Jimmy Key's broken-down arm wasn't bum fortune; it was actuarial certainty. The man is 37 years old. And Scott Kamieniecki was a reclamation project, another accident waiting to happen.
Bad luck is what you make of it. Look at the Yankees. Darryl Strawberry is lost to colon cancer, so what happens? Shane Spencer, fresh off the Triple A hay wagon, starts swatting game-winning home runs. Same thing with the pitching: The Yanks' rotation held together while the Orioles' crumbled because the Yankees broke camp with five solid, healthy starters in hand and a promising sixth--Cuban escapee Orlando Hernandez--in the pipeline.
The Yankees ran away with the division because they were superior at almost every position. Break it down. I'd give the O's the nod at first base, with Rafael Palmeiro over Tino Martinez. And Jesse Orosco is better than anybody the Yankees had in middle relief. But everywhere else it goes the other way. Bernie Williams (American League-leading .339 batting average) vs. Brady Anderson (.236)? Jorge Posada (63 RBI) vs. Lenny Webster (46 RBI)? Mike Bordick had what was, for him, a breakout year -- .260, 13 homers, 59 runs. Derek Jeter? .324, 19 homers, 127 runs.
I don't mean for this to be discouraging, Mr. Angelos. I just want to see the Orioles get to where the Yankees are, and surpass them. I want to inspire you. I'm grateful for your willingness to spend money on the team. I'd hate to root for a team like Kansas City, where ownership simply won't pay for good players and the fans all know by April Fools Day that the team isn't going to win anything. You have the will, and you have the wallet.
What you need to do is think bigger. Even if you sign the right free agents, win the wild card, and take the World Series, where does that leave you? Right there with the Florida Marlins, mocked and unloved. You should aim for more than buying a championship. You should aim to build the Orioles into the greatest franchise in the major leagues.
When people talk about player development, they tend to make it sound like a program of vitamins. Think of it instead as the stuff of empire. Your outgoing general manager, Pat Gillick, says the team should bring up one rookie each year. How about three or four a year? How about more than the team can hold? The last time I checked, at about midseason, there were about 25 Orioles-developed players around the majors--that is, an entire team's worth. Why not double that? Become a net exporter of talent. Scout and sign and develop more players than anyone else, keep the cream, and flood the league with the rest. See who sneers at your payroll then.
This will require delegating some authority. Let it happen. If you surround yourself with superior people, the world will recognize your superiority. This is why it was a mistake to lose Jon Miller and Davey Johnson. There's no shame in having the best people in the business working for you, even if they do strike you as mouthy or ungrateful.
And there is no reason on earth why a team in this city, with your resources, should ever finish lower than third. Put this horrible year behind us all and build to win, and to keep winning, year after year. Do it, and we won't care if you didn't make every decision yourself. We will pour into the streets and cheer your name. And I will cheer the loudest.
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