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Feature

Zeros of Birdland

Presenting the Most Useless Orioles of All Time

Baseball cards courtesy David Scocca, Rick Schreiber, and Don Betz of Jay's Sports Connection, Timonium

By Andy Markowitz and Tom Scocca | Posted 4/3/2002

Remember this, Orioles fans, as you hunker down for another summer of cut-rate baseball: It could be worse.

We know this, simply enough, because it has been worse. We're not ready to buy the company line about this year's O's being a young and rejuvenated squad, on its way toward glory. Another fourth-place finish looks likely, and we can't rule out fifth. But that sort of subadequacy is exactly what everyone expects. It won't be anything memorable.

And so, as the April sunshine falls on Oriole Park, we turn to Orioles history, looking back on the darkest days of Birdland. Whether we were seeking comfort, or just a different kind of pain, is hard to say. But what we came up with was this: City Paper's All-Time All-Useless Orioles Team.

Uselessness, here, is something more than mere badness. Plenty of baseball players are no good. They come up, have their cup of coffee, and go back to driving a truck or teaching phys ed. That's just part of the game.

This is about the players who got their cup of coffee, spilled it all over the manager's crotch, and went back for refills--players whose failures were profound and significant. The list encompasses a range of types: broken-down has-beens, no-talent journeymen, eternally unripe prospects, flashes-in-the-pan who outstayed their welcome. Some were bad everywhere they played; some were bad only in Baltimore. Many of their performances testify to organizational stupidity; a few testify only to the perversity of fate. What they have in common is that the Orioles invested resources, hope, and/or playing time in them--and got burned.

Our standards were high. A player who did his job well at all, even if he later turned bad, doesn't count as having been useless. This is why Albert Belle is off the list: The O's brought him in to carry the offense, and he gave them 37 homers and 117 RBIs in his first season. His subsequent breakdown doesn't change that. Likewise Dan Ford gets a pass, thanks to his .280 average and 55 RBIs in 103 games for the 1983 World Series champs.

And some players had hidden utility. Curtis Goodwin hit like Ichiro Suzuki for one heady month of June, then spent the rest of the summer--and his career--hitting like Mac Suzuki. But that lone fluky month allowed the O's to swap him to Cincinnati for David Wells. Off he comes.

Then again, some players' uselessness went deeper than their stats. On the face of it, Keith Moreland was no more undistinguished an Oriole than Ron Kittle or Lonnie Smith was. But Moreland timed his failure to wreck a pennant race. He wins the designated-hitter slot.

The All-Useless Team is a full 25-man roster, with a nine-man lineup, a balanced bench, a five-man pitching rotation, and a bullpen. We are indebted to the incredibly useful Baseball-Reference.com and to a long line of Washington Post beat reporters, whose archived work in Lexis-Nexis helped jar loose our repressed memories of Orioles failure. We needed all the data we could get; competition was tight. (Will Clark and Gene Stephens, you were worthy, but we just couldn't squeeze you in.) If the list seems tipped toward the last decade or so, that's less a matter of generational bias on our part than cold historical fact: We went prospecting in the '60s and '70s, but those Orioles were just too talented and well-run for a useless player to make much impact. The late '80s and '90s, by contrast, were a three-ring clown show. This team reflects that.

So here they are, in all their ingloriousness. We like to picture them taking the field in the O's short-lived orange double-knit pants, with the black jerseys and those ridiculous gray hats from 1995. The Brad Havens/Rich Bordi/Rick Dempsey lip-sync version of "Old Time Rock 'N' Roll" plays on the JumboTron. It's going to be a long year.

Manager
Phil Regan, 1995
He looked like Spiro T. Agnew and managed like a rhesus monkey with a Strat-o-Matic. A full half-dozen members of the All-Useless team (plus four more who just missed the cut) played for the 1995 Orioles of Phil Regan--twice the yield from even the rancid 107-loss 1988 club. Why? Because Regan let the bad players show their stuff. Other O's skippers had Manny Alexander, but none of them gave him 242 at-bats. Nobody else let the likes of Bret Barberie and Kevin Bass start at designated hitter--while veteran batsman Harold Baines, wasting one of his last prime seasons, got pinned to the bench at the first whiff of left-handed pitching. And nobody was more loath to disturb a pitcher, even when the pitcher was getting raked. "Those people don't understand relief pitching," he grumped to the press when the crowd booed Doug Jones after Regan had left the closer out on the mound through his infamous six-run ninth-inning meltdown. But they understood world-class uselessness when they saw it.

Starting Lineup
Catcher: Brook Fordyce, 2000-
Singling out Brook Fordyce as the Orioles' behind-the-plate nadir is admittedly a bit cruel, and not just because he's still around. He is, by all appearances, a decent enough receiver who'd slot quite nicely as somebody's backup or part-time platooner. What he is not is a three-year, $7.7 million fixture, which is what the Orioles made him, in a particularly galling piece of Warehouse bumbling.

Fordyce (along with a few marginal prospects) was acquired from the White Sox during the Purge of 2000 in exchange for Charles Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove catcher with home-run power, with whom the team had been haggling over contract issues. The O's tried to put the best face on the eye-rolling deal, and Fordyce obliged by hitting .322 the rest of the season. Never mind that this was 50 points above his pre-Orioles career average, or that he threw out an appalling three of 38 base runners; the front office, in a transparent attempt to cover its ass for punting Johnson, declared that it had found the Catcher of the Future (conveniently ignoring the fact that the new catcher was a year older than the one he replaced). Freshly signed to a multiyear deal, Fordyce hit .209 last year and lost his starting job to the anemic Fernando Lunar.

Fordyce is probably no more a .209 hitter than he was a .322 hitter (in fact, he had a red-hot spring), but at his salary no other team is going to care to find out. The Orioles are stuck with him--and he's stuck with being a poster player for organizational disarray.

First base: Glenn Davis, 1991-'93
"Get this [expletive] out of here!" usually mild-tempered manager Johnny Oates reportedly yelled in September of 1993, after Glenn Davis demanded to know why he wasn't in the starting lineup. Fans couldn't have agreed more.

After the 1990 season, with the club still crippled by the senseless loss of Eddie Murray (see Jim Traber and Juan Bell, below), the Orioles set their sights on Davis, who'd slugged 30 or more homers three times in six full seasons with the Houston Astros. Freed from the cavernous Astrodome, the club reckoned, Davis would be good for 40 or more home runs a year. So the O's sent Houston three young players: starting pitcher Pete Harnisch, who'd led the club in innings the previous season; budding outfield whiz Steve Finley; and an erratic, hard-throwing righty named Curt Schilling.

The 40 homers never materialized. Nor did the 30, or even 20. Davis, displacing fan favorite Randy Milligan at first base, did nothing to endear himself to his new city. He struggled through slumps and sat out with a bizarre series of injuries, while pulling down the largest paycheck on the team. In 1993, while on minor-league injury rehab in Triple-A, the putatively born-again Davis got his jaw smashed in a bar fight in Virginia Beach, Va. When he returned to the O's dugout, he got hit in the face by a foul ball. Soon after came the blowup with Oates, followed two days later by his release.

The final tally: three years, $11.4 million, 24 homers. Harnisch, Finley, and Schilling all went on to be All-Stars--with the latter two, more than a decade later, leading the Arizona Diamondbacks to last year's championship. Sam Hampton, the bouncer who broke Davis' jaw, parlayed that feat into a respectable heavyweight-boxing career on Baltimore's club circuit. Which was the most entertainment anyone around here got from the whole Davis debacle.

Second base: Bret Barberie, 1995
Second base, in Orioles history, has fairly teemed with unworthies. There was the sadly unraveling Alan Wiggins, the pointless Pete Stanicek, the used-up carcass of Harold Reynolds. But the All-Useless starting job goes to Bret Barberie. Where Reynolds illustrated the team's habit of wishfully signing fading All Stars--O's brass touted his speed, after he'd stolen 12 bases the previous season--Barberie represented a different habit: signing established players with no discernable good points. People sort of knew Barberie's name. He could switch-hit, though not with any power or patience. He was the prototype of the Proven Major Leaguer.

And that's all he was. Barberie showed up, put on the uniform, and played. In 90 games, he hit two homers, stole three bases, and got hit by six pitches. He played lackluster defense, committing seven errors. He came, he left, and there was no reason to remember he'd ever passed this way.

Third Base: Todd Cruz, 1983-'84
It's hard to imagine the starting third baseman on a World Series-winning club getting this honor, but then Todd Cruz's career is a litany of peculiarly spectacular failure, and an apt symbol for the O's misbegotten string of hot-corner "experiments" between Cal Ripken Jr. and Cal Ripken Jr.

A reputed hot dog and hothead, Cruz had bounced around four teams in four years (making his biggest splash by smashing a jewelry-store window in Edmonton, Alberta, during a stint in the minors) before he signed with Seattle in 1982 and inexplicably hit 16 home runs (after hitting five in 455 previous major-league at-bats). He didn't do much else, though, and midway through '83 the Mariners chucked Cruz and his .190 batting average. The Orioles picked him up, even though he played shortstop and they already had one of those. Cruz took over third, a position he'd played in the majors all of 13 times. In his Baltimore debut he homered and knocked in six runs. In 80 more games that season he managed only two more homers, then went 4-for-31 in the O's postseason march. The next season, Cruz lost his starting job to the immortal Wayne Gross.

Cruz wasn't just ineffective in Baltimore, he was brutal: In 177 games, he batted .212 with six homers and 36 RBIs, slugged a pathetic .294, and compiled a .946 fielding percentage. He did pitch a scoreless inning, though. He was released by the Orioles in March of '85, at the age of 29, and was never heard from again.

Shortstop: Manny Alexander, 1992-'96
It's tough enough to come up touted as the heir apparent to Cal Ripken Jr. Worse still when, statistically, you turn out to be the heir to Lenn Sakata. (You could look it up)

"Perhaps nothing speaks to the regard given Alexander by the Orioles organization more than the talk of moving Ripken Jr. [to third]," enthused Manny's 1993 Upper Deck "Star Rookie" card. Alexander was the club's top prospect--the prototypical slap-hitting, slick-fielding, fleet (90 steals in two seasons at Single- and Double-A) Dominican shortstop--but there was no job for him in Baltimore. Rather than trade him while his stock was high, the O's hedged their bets, keeping Ripken at short and Alexander on a short leash. They tried moving him to second base; he balked. In the meantime, people started to notice that he didn't hit so good.

So Alexander hung around--waiting, mostly playing second, his "prospect" status sinking faster than his on-base percentage (an abysmal .264 for his O's career). When he finally got his shot at short in July '96, it wasn't even about Alexander anymore; skipper Davey Johnson just wanted to show Ripken who was boss. Six games, two errors, and a 1-for-18 plate performance later, Johnson had proven his point and Alexander's days in Baltimore were numbered. He's spent the last five years an itinerant utilityman, last seen being waived by the Yanks for having introduced scofflaw outfielder Ruben Rivera to the memorabilia dealer to whom Rivera sold Derek Jeter's stolen glove.

Left field: Luis Polonia, 1996
Why Luis Polonia? Exactly: Why Luis Polonia? By the time he joined the Orioles in 1996, the former Athletic, Yankee, Angel, and Brave had amply established, through nine seasons in the majors, that he wasn't good at anything. OK, he was a top-10 triples hitter many years. That means he hit a half-dozen or so triples those years. The only other notable line on his résumé was a 1989 conviction for statutory rape.

Yet the O's signed him to a minor-league contract, then brought him to the big club, apparently out of some vague sense of insufficiency: We've gotta get somebody. What they got was a nobody. In 58 games, Polonia batted .240, with a .285 on-base percentage and a .309 slugging percentage. Those were ridiculously puny numbers for anyone, let alone a left fielder who moonlighted at DH.

Defensively, his figures were average, but that was deceptive. What distinguished Polonia was his sheer veteran's apathy afield. He loafed after fly balls, threw to the wrong base, never took a one-hopper when two hops would do. Calling it boneheaded would miss the point. "Boneheaded" implies someone is trying and failing to think. Polonia just didn't try at all.

Center field: Ken Gerhart, 1986-1988
The O's farm system famously hasn't produced a front-line major-league position player since Cal Ripken Jr. (unless you count--whoops!--Steve Finley). That doesn't mean the Orioles haven't been trying all these years, though. Witness Ken Gerhart. He looked like a big-league player. He ran like a big-league player. He hit minor-league pitching like a big-league player. The Orioles penciled him in to be a 30-homer/30-stolen-base threat.

For all the hope, he didn't reach either plateau--for his career. He peaked at 14 homers and nine steals in 1987, a season cut short when a pitch from Doug Jones--yes, the same Doug Jones who made this All-Useless team--broke his wrist. Maybe the injury derailed Gerhart. Maybe (given his .243 average at the time) he was never on the rails to begin with. Either way, in '88 he got another crack at the bigs, and this time he blew it completely. It's impossible to pin that season's disaster on one guy, but you could make a case for Gerhart. In 103 games, split between left and center fields, he batted .195 with an on-base percentage of .256. Essentially, he was an automatic out, a guaranteed rally killer on a team desperate for offense. The next spring, the O's shipped him off to the Giants. And for the next decade, whenever they wanted a slugger, they looked outside the organization.

Right field: Vic Wertz, 1954
Vic Wertz hit almost everywhere he went. Almost. In 1949, at age 24, he knocked in 133 runs for the Detroit Tigers, then followed it with 123 RBIs in 1950. Traded to the hapless St. Louis Browns in mid-1952, he kept on stroking the ball: 25 homers and 89 RBIs in 165 games through '52 and '53.

Then the Browns moved to Baltimore. And Wertz, at the age of 29, seemed to leave his bat behind--inaugurating the tradition of impact players losing their impact in Mobtown. In 29 games as a new-fledged Oriole, he batted .202, with one homer and a paltry .245 slugging percentage.

But Wertz was not merely another ex-All Star, slowly fading away. The O's, frustrated, shipped him off to Cleveland in May. Instantly, he bounced back, batting .275 with 14 homers, helping the Indians to 111 wins and the pennant. In the World Series, he batted .500 and slugged .937--figures that would have been higher if not for the most famous defensive play of all time, Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder rundown of a 460-foot Wertz blast to dead center in Game 1.

Unfazed, Wertz went on to top 100 RBIs three more times, for the Indians and Red Sox; back with Detroit in '62, he batted .324 at age 37. The next season, at age 38, his numbers finally dropped back to the level they were in the spring of 1954, when baseball was new in Baltimore. That's what it took to stop Vic Wertz: advanced age, Willie Mays, or an Orioles uniform.

Designated hitter: Keith Moreland, 1989
In the thick of the pennant race, the 1989 Orioles faced a choice: Should they keep trusting in the startling combination of youth, pluck, and luck that had vaulted them from last place to first? Or should they make like real contenders and try to improve on their success? Just before the trading deadline, holding a 31/2-game lead, the Orioles decided to tinker, sending minor-league pitcher Brian DuBois to Detroit for 35-year-old DH Keith Moreland.

Moreland only played in 33 games, but that was enough to wreck the season. Brought in to shore up the lineup and protect the young bats, he batted .215 with one homer and 10 RBIs. Nor was he content to be quietly ineffective. As the team battled beak-and-claw with the Toronto Blue Jays down the stretch, Moreland whined about his playing time and threatened to retire. Like some cursed gift from the baseball gods, he poisoned September. The Blue Jays edged ahead. Playing the O's head to head on the final weekend of the season, the Jays put the upstarts away with a pair of late-inning rallies. With the pennant gone but one game still remaining, Moreland quit the team and went home. His work was done.

Bench
Juan Bell, infield, 1989-'92
Juan Bell would be just another middling middle infielder who passed this way were he not inextricably linked with Orioles legend, forever the Guy They Traded Eddie For. Well, not quite: The Los Angeles Dodgers also sent two pitchers in exchange for Eddie Murray, whom O's management and fans had turned on during the team's late-'80s swoon. But the 20-year-old Bell was the linchpin of the December 1988 deal, a reputed can't-miss talent with dazzling defensive chops and a developing bat. He was also a bit of a head case, along the lines of his brother, malcontent slugger George Bell. The Dodgers, who had coveted L.A. native Murray for months, were reportedly only too happy to give up the moody shortstop in the bargain.

The Orioles deposited Bell in Triple A to mature (and learn to play second), bringing him up for the briefest of cups of coffee in '89 and '90, then finally gave him a spot as a utility infielder in 1991. Bell didn't just make people miss Eddie Murray; he made people miss Enos Cabell. In 100 games he batted .172; he hit one homer, didn't steal a base, struck out 51 times and walked only eight. The following year Bell was back in the minors, and before the season was out the Guy They Traded Eddie For was dispatched to Philadelphia for Steve Scarsone. Bell played his last major-league game in 1995, a year in which the 39-year-old Murray batted .323 with 82 RBIs for Cleveland.

Joe Carter, outfield, 1998
Joe Carter is a bitterly debated figure among baseball fans. Those who favor broad-brush analysis have him slotted as a Hall of Famer, a proven run producer who topped 100 RBIs 10 times and hit a clutch World Series-winning homer in 1993. Cold-blooded stat-heads counter that Carter's on-base percentage was terrible and his slugging was so-so; he drove in all those runs, the argument goes, by getting lots of chances to drive in runs--given 600-plus at-bats on good-hitting teams, as Carter regularly did, nearly anyone could be a 100-RBI man.

So in some sense, Carter's 1998 campaign with the Orioles proves his greatness: This time around, he showed up, but he didn't produce any runs. The 38-year-old Carter somehow--despite playing in 85 games, despite getting 283 at-bats, even despite hitting 11 homers--scratched out a mere 34 RBIs. Maybe his .247 average had something to do with it. Or his 18 walks. Regardless, the debate about opportunity vs. ability should be settled; he had the opportunity, but his abilities were shot.

Hoot Evers, Outfield, 1955-'56
Walter "Hoot" Evers was the Joe Carter of his day, an aging Proven Veteran taking up space on a second-division O's club as his career wound down. Evers had been a pretty fair player in the late '40s with Detroit (where he played alongside Vic Wertz), a solid defensive outfielder and steady .300 hitter who twice knocked in more than 100 runs. In 1952, after he turned the corner on 30 (and his batting average dropped 100 points), the Tigers let him go. Three years later, after a 1954 season in which his ebbing skills were batted about by three different teams (for whom he batted a combined .152), Evers was picked up by a decidedly unchoosy Orioles squad that already included such sunset boulevardiers as Vern Stephens, Eddie Waitkus, and Billy Cox, a harbinger of the over-the-hill gangs to come. Let go midway through '55 and, for some reason, brought back in '56, Evers did his thing, batting .239 with 34 RBIs in 108 listless games with the O's before retiring.

Matt Nokes, catcher, 1995
Orioles history is littered with anonymous, dime-a-dozen second-string catchers--your Bob Melvins, your Jamie Quirks, your Jeff Tacketts and Joe Ginsbergs, guys who have jobs only because their position is too physically demanding for anyone to play every day. The O's must have figured they struck lucky when they got Nokes, once a pretty good power hitter with the Tigers and Yankees, to back up Chris Hoiles. Two slugging catchers! Nokes' $700,000 price tag was steep for a second-stringer, but the O's were eager to add his pop to the lineup. Instead, Nokes gave the Orioles exactly what they would have gotten from Jeff Tackett or Joe Ginsberg--less, even, batting .122 with six RBIs in 26 games. Released after two months, he blasted the team for not playing him enough, then hooked up with the presumably wiser Colorado Rockies . . . who waited only 11 at-bats before showing him the door.

Bob "Rabbit" Saverine, infield/ outfield, 1959, 1962-'64
By nature, the utility man isn't a great ballplayer. If he were, the team would reserve a space for him, and he'd become a shortstop or a second baseman or something. But still, the whole point of being a utility man--etymologically, even--is to not be useless.

Bob "Rabbit" Saverine was undeniably versatile. Unfortunately, he was versatile at being awful. From 1962 to 1964, he moved around among key skill positions: 60 games in center field, 28 at shortstop, 26 at second base. And wherever he went, he made far fewer plays than the league average. His career in center, getting less than half as many balls as an average player, could be the prototype for the defensive failures of Rich Becker in 1995. But while Becker could play all three outfield positions badly, he never came in to play the infield badly too. That gives Saverine the edge.

Not that Saverine was defined just by his defense. His fullest offensive season came in '63, when he hit .234 in 115 games. And it was a soft .234, with one homer and 44 strikeouts--making for a robust .281 slugging percentage. No matter where they put him in the lineup, the O's knew exactly what they'd get.

Jim Traber, first base/DH, 1984, 1986, 1988-'89
Everybody knew this: Jim Traber, circa 1988, was nothing like Eddie Murray. Murray was from Los Angeles; Traber was a local boy from Columbia. Murray was self-possessed and aloof; Traber was puppy-dog affable. Murray was an 11-year veteran; Traber was fresh up from the minors.

Oh, and Murray was black and Traber was white. Not that anybody noticed that, did they? They just loved Traber for being Traber. He saw his first real major-leagueaction in 1986, during Murray's first and only stint on the O's disabled list. Covering for the moody All-Star, he smacked 13 homers in a 65-game hitch, and sang the national anthem to boot. As the franchise crumbled in '88 and Murray's relationship with the city soured, the memory of that idyll tugged at everyone.

And so, after the season Murray got shipped to the L.A. Dodgers for hot shortstop prospect Juan Bell--and Traber, who'd hit only 10 homers in '88, inherited his job. Then, finally, everybody noticed the other difference between Murray and Traber: Murray was a future Hall of Famer, and Traber was a sub-.240 hitter. After a month and a half, Randy Milligan had displaced him at first base. He closed the year on an 0-for-22 skid, and the O's sold his contract to Japan's Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Murray? Murray hit 20 homers with the Dodgers in '89, then 26 the next year. He kept on hitting through the '90s, till he joined Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as the only players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. The 500th homer came in an Orioles uniform, in a return tour in 1996 at age 40. The bitterness had faded since '88. But the years between were gone forever.

Starting Rotation
Sid Fernandez, 1994-'95
Sid Fernandez was the pitching version of Glenn Davis, an All-Star caliber National Leaguer who donned the orange and black and suddenly, inexplicably, became a colossal schmuck. (At least the O's didn't give up the store for El Sid--just $9 million.) Was it the designated hitter? The different strike zone? Many blamed the weight (the 6-foot-1 Fernandez was charitably listed at 230 pounds), but he'd done just fine as a fat Met, a decade-long starter who won 98 games and never had an ERA higher than 3.81. In Baltimore, he was such a radically worse pitcher as to beg consideration of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers/pod-person scenario. In his first season here, his ERA spiked to 5.15, two runs above his career average, and he served up a career-high 27 homers in only 115-plus innings, nearly triple his previous rate. The baseball strike mercifully cut the season short.

Sid came back 37 pounds lighter in 1995, per team orders, but threw even worse, going winless with a 7.67 ERA before being demoted to the bullpen, threatening to retire without telling anyone ("You just won't see me," he told The Washington Post. "I'll be gone with the wind, and that's it."), and finally getting released on July 9. A few days later he signed with Philadelphia amid general guffawing, but Sid got the last laugh, going 6-1 with 3.34 ERA. He retired a couple years later, having carved himself a special place in Orioles fans' guts and a spot in the baseball lexicon under "National League pitcher."

Doug Drabek, 1998
Unlike with Sid Fernandez, the Orioles got about what they should have expected from Doug Drabek. Unfortunately, what they were actually expecting was some facsimile of the Cy Young-winning Drabek of 1990, not the end-of-his-tether Drabek of '98. Here is the arc of Drabek's career for the four seasons before he joined the Orioles:

ERA: 2.84/4.77/4.57/5.74

Walks per nine innings: 2.46/2.63/3.08/3.67

Strikeouts per nine innings: 6.1/6/6.96/7.03/4.52

Home runs per nine innings: 0.77/0.88/1.08/1.59

Notice anything? You're one up on then-new O's manager Ray Miller, at whose nostalgia-befogged urging Baltimore signed the 35-year-old to be an innings-chewing No. 4 starter. Miller, Drabek's pitching coach on the Pirates' division-winning early-'90s squads, figured he could right the righty's sinking ship. "You know what he's going to give you," Miller enthused. "I've never heard him make an excuse. If he loses 1-0, he's going to say he made a bad pitch to lose the game."

No doubt he would have. But Drabek didn't lose games 1-0. He got torched to the tune of a 7.29 ERA en route to a 6-11 record, doing his part in the Orioles' first-to-fourth implosion. His decline punctuated by an exclamation point, he hung 'em up.

Rocky Coppinger, 1996-'99
Rocky Coppinger was a winner. That's beyond dispute. In three and a half seasons, the meaty right-hander went 11-8 for the O's. The trouble was, 10-6 of that record came in his rookie year, 1996. The Orioles, led by Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro, were rebounding that year, going from a losing record in '95 to 88 wins and a wild-card playoff slot. And the 22-year-old Coppinger--a big, hard-throwing Texan in the Roger Clemens mold--looked as if he'd be anchoring the pitching staff for years to come.

But it was a specious 10-6, with an ugly 5.18 ERA attached to it. Rather than the rookie carrying the club, the club had been carrying the rookie. And down the stretch, as nagging injuries mounted, the rookie got harder to carry. Against the Yankees in the playoffs, he served up three home runs in 51/3 brutal innings of Game 4, effectively ending the series.

The O's would rebound to win the division the next year. But Cop Rock, hampered by arm trouble, barely contributed. Nor did he do much the next year. He put on weight and feuded with club brass. His delivery got messed up. Maybe, with better care and management, he might have grown to be the centerpiece of a winning club. But he had Orioles care and Orioles management. So he got shipped to the Brewers, and the O's settled into fourth place.

Don Larsen, 1954, 1965
To be fair, Don Larsen wasn't completely useless in an Orioles uniform. In 1965, in the twilight of his career, the 35-year-old pitched 27 games for the Birds, mostly working from the bullpen, for a 1-2 record and a 2.67 ERA. Respectable work.

But it was nowhere near enough to undo everything Larsen had done before. More even than Vic Wertz, Larsen was the definitive pioneer of baseball futility in Mobtown. After going 7-12 his rookie year with the '53 Browns, he moved with the team--and got worse. The '54 O's were an awful team, but never so awful as when Larsen was pitching. In a season where his squad went 54-100 overall, for a .351 winning percentage, Larsen was more than twice as bad: 3-21, for a .125 winning percentage. Forty-eight years later, those 21 losses still stand as a club record.

And then Larsen went off to the Yankees. With whom he went 45-24 in five seasons, and pitched a perfect game in the '56 World Series. Adding an all-time insult to the all-time injury.

Jay Tibbs, 1988-'90
The Birds' miraculous 1989 season brightened--and prolonged--the careers of a number of previously terrible players. There was Jeff Ballard, for instance, who went 18-8 that year, 18-43 in the rest of his five-year O's career. For Ballard, that was enough to bump him off the All-Useless team; awful as he was overall, he was thoroughly--if inexplicably--great that one year, starting 35 games and tallying a 3.43 ERA.

Not so Jay Tibbs. Tibbs was in need of redemption in '89 too, coming off an atrocious 4-15 record and a 5.39 ERA the year before. And when he went undefeated, with a 2.82 ERA, it looked like still more proof of the '89 magic. But Tibbs' great record was a mere 5-0, as shoulder problems limited him to 541/3 innings.

And that 5-0 year was a statistical blip. Back on the mound in '90, he went 2-7 for the O's, with a 5.68 ERA--running his career mark in Baltimore to 11-22. It's tempting to say that Tibbs was never the same pitcher after he got rotator-cuff surgery. Actually, he was. Exactly the same.

Bullpen
Doug Jones, 1995
All pitchers have bad innings. When a starter has one he gets five or six more innings to make up for it, notch a "quality start," and leave his team in a position to win. A closer gets one shot--bad inning, game over. It happens.

So understand that Doug Jones is not the Orioles' All-Useless closer because of his ninth-inning blowout on Aug. 1, 1995, when in the space of six batters he turned a 10-6 lead over Toronto into a 12-10 loss, sending the contending O's into a tailspin from which they never recovered. Not even because, as he departed to deserved boos, he sardonically tipped his cap and jawed with a fan. No, Jones makes this team not for one astonishingly bad night. He makes it because he disappointed all season long.

Sure, Jones had 22 saves in 25 opportunities, but he made it a constant adventure, allowing more than 1.5 base runners per inning and a 5.01 ERA--one of the reasons he only got 25 opportunities. (Even subtracting Aug. 1, Jones' ERA was 3.86, not exactly reassuring for a guy who's supposed to steer you home in close games. His ERA in '94, when he saved 27 for a crappy Phillies team, was 2.17.) By the end of the season, Jesse Orosco was as likely to get the late-game call; by the off-season, Doug Jones was tipping his cap to Baltimore for good.

Heathcliff Slocumb, 1999
According to Baseball-Reference.com, the pitcher in all of major-league history whom Heathcliff Slocumb most resembles statistically is . . . Mike Fetters. And both pitched in the same 1999 O's bullpen. This apparent anomaly makes perfect sense viewed through the prism of the late-'90s Orioles staff-building strategy, which was apparently guided by the goal of building a really crack mid-'90s rotisserie-league team.

Hence, Slocumb and Fetters and Timlin, oh my--just a bunch of guys who used to close ball games. All sunk to their level in time; Slocumb gets the nod here for the sheer explosive force of his flame-out. Effective with the Phils and Red Sox a few years prior, Slocumb was persona non grata by spring 1999, having washed out of the Mariners' bullpen, then baseball's worst. Signed for $1.1 million by new general manager Frank Wren, he quickly set about helping the Orioles wrest Seattle's crown, giving up 15 hits, nine walks, and 12 earned runs in 82/3 innings. He was gone by the end of April, at the insistence of skipper Ray Miller, who was feuding with Wren over the direction of the pitching staff: The GM favored hopeless veterans, the manager hapless kids. Both Miller and Wren were fired shortly after the season ended; Slocumb, in one of those King-Midas-in-reverse touches that have plagued the latter-day O's, was signed by St. Louis a few days after his release and pitched sensationally the rest of the year.

Doug Linton, 1999
Of course, the '99 O's staff wasn't all broken-down former stars. There were also broken-down permanent mediocrities. Doug Linton stands in eloquent testimony to just how desperate that year's team was for arms--or, conversely, just how desperately unready the kids in the minors were. Linton showed up in the Orioles' '99 spring camp, 34 years old, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery. He hadn't pitched in the bigs since 1996. He'd appeared in 91 games over five seasons with four teams, as a spot starter/long reliever. His career ERA was 5.84. And yet, he was one of the 11 best pitchers the Orioles had coming out of Florida. He went north with the team, dutifully did his job--14 appearances, eight starts, 1-4 record, 5.95 ERA--and returned to the void from which he came.

Brad Pennington, 1993-'95
Ah, Brad Pennington. Lodestar for sabermetricians who relish the perverse poetry of a really strange stat line; proof that hope springs eternal for a lanky lefty who can bring heat. The Orioles nurtured Pennington for years, convinced the 6-foot-5 southpaw with the three-digit fastball was their closer-to-be. Sure, he was wild; sure, he was erratic. But with the right care and feeding, he'd become . . . even more wild and erratic. The O's finally gave up on Pennington and his it's-a-bird-it's-a-plane heater in mid-'95, but there was always another team convinced he could be tamed--Reds, Angels, Red Sox. And always the same poignant tale in agate type, until his final doomed foray with the atrocious Devil Rays in 1998: one appearance, four batters, one hit, three walks. That was the last of it. For his major-league career, Brad Pennington pitched 752/3 innings, struck out 83 batters, and walked 89. Sigh.

Dizzy Trout, 1957
The Proven Veteran theory in extremis. Paul Howard "Dizzy" Trout was a first-rate pitcher, a two-time All-Star who won 170 games in 13 seasons, mostly with Detroit, before retiring in 1952. Five years later, after what must have been the most impressive Old Timers Game appearance in history, the Orioles signed him up. Maybe it was a stunt: Trout was a noted character, and the O's certainly could have used a gimmick after averaging 94 losses in their first three seasons in Baltimore. In any event, the 42-year-old righty found whippersnapper major leaguers to be trickier foes than his fellow retirees; in two appearances he got only one batter out, giving up four hits and three earned runs in the process. Trout re-retired and went on to a broadcasting career; he also fathered a big-league pitcher, Steve Trout, and was elected to the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame. It is not known whether he pitched in any more Old Timers Games.

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