The Baltimore Orioles wouldn’t play along with the replacement baseball scam, and Cal Ripken is poised to break a record at the very heart of the game’s mythology. If the baseball gods are just, the Birds will be rewarded with a title. Of course, that assumes there’s something spiritual left in the game.
In addition to giving baseball worship a good name, an Oriole title would make history. Winning the American League East would make the Birds the first team ever to overcome a defending world champion and the team with the league’s best record the previous season. The 1993 and still-defending world-champion Toronto Blue Jays improved with the addition of AL Cy Young winner David Cone. The best-in-’94 New York Yankees added closer John Wetteland, tops in the business at the moment. The Boston Red Sox, sockless in recent years, bulked up with Jose Canseco, Mark “Hard Hittin’ ” Whiten, and Oriole killer Mike Macfarlane, and added starting pitcher Erik Hanson.
The Orioles haven’t rested on the laurels of last year’s 63-49 record, fourth-best in the AL (two-and-a-half games short of a wild-card berth but a convincing six-and-a-half games behind the Yankees). First off, they fired manager Johnny Oates, who took over a losing team in 1991 and made it a contender the next three seasons, crafting a full-season average of 88 wins. Oates won ballgames, but he lost the support of Peter Angelos and the Washington Post, so he had to go. Oates did such a lousy managing job in Baltimore that it took him all of 20 minutes to get hired in Texas.
The Orioles have replaced Oates with Phil Regan, a 58-year-old rookie manager who appears to match Oates’ dedication and low-key style. The most promising detail about Regan comes from his playing career. A reliever in the ’60s, Regan was known as “The Vulture” for swooping into games where the starting pitcher had done the heavy lifting, and “vulturing” a win. Regan appears to have come into a similar situation as a manager. Oriole fans must hope that the old bird’s claws are still sharp.
Regan’s experience as a hurler and pitching coach should further strengthen an Oriole pitching staff that last season gave up the fewest runs and walks in the AL. The Birds added inning-eating sinkerballer Kevin Brown, the AL win leader with 21 in 1992. Brown should improve on last year’s 7-9, 4.89 numbers now that he has the league’s best defense behind him, rather than the ragtag bunch he fronted for as a Texas Ranger. Acquiring Brown pushes proven loser Jamie Moyer out of the rotation.
The O’s sport further addition-by-subtraction in the person of left-hander Sid Fernandez. Last season’s free agent bust has shed some 40 pounds, which should help trim his 5.15 ERA as well, and keep him off the disabled list. Brown and Fernandez fill out the No. 3 and 4 spots in the rotation behind potential 20-game winners Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, whose combined 30 victories were tops among major-league teammates last season. Southpaw Arthur Rhodes demonstrated his potential in the No. 5 slot with back-to-back shutouts last August. Rhodes may keep up the good work under new tutors Regan and pitching coach Mike Flanagan, who, at least initially, show more confidence in him than the old regime did.
The Oriole bullpen posted a league-low 3.75 ERA last year, yielding the fewest runs and walks in the AL and finishing one save short of the league lead. This season, a substantially different cast will be charged with reproducing that success. Major-league career save leader Lee Smith is gone, taking his 1994 major-league-high 33 saves in 39 opportunities with him. Hoping to repeat that veteran-reliever success story, the Orioles have imported Doug Jones, whose best pitch is a change-up. Going on 38, Jones has fallen into a pattern of following a good season with a bad one—and he’s coming off a fine ’94 showing with the Philadelphia Phillies. But Regan’s experience, including his alleged mastery of the greaseball, may help Jones break the pattern. Jones’ acquisition takes the initial pressure off Armando Benitez, the Oriole closer of the near-future. The 22-year-old fireballer fanned 14 in his first 10 major-league innings, and has a total 302 strikeouts in 216 1/3 pro innings.
The Oriole bullpen has also lost sidewinder Mark Eichhorn, who is out for the season with arm trouble after posting a 2.43 ERA in 71 innings last year—nearly a third of the Oriole bullpen’s total. Veteran lefty Jesse Orosco, along with Moyer, Benitez, Alan Mills, and Brad Pennington will have to pick up that slack. Mills remains the best bet among this bunch; he flourished as a middle man behind Gregg Olsson in 1992, though his ERA has climbed in the interim.
On offense, the Orioles have tried to sharpen an attack that tied for fourth in the AL with the Yankees at 139 homers. But the Birds tallied 80 fewer runs than the Bronx Bombers, placing Baltimore seventh in the AL in scoring. The O’s have added yet more power from the left side with catcher/DH Matt Nokes and outfielder Andy Van Slyke, joining centerpiece slugger Rafael Palmeiro at first base, DH Harold Baines, and left fielder Brady Anderson. The Orioles had a better record against lefty starters (17-11, .607) than righties (46-38, .548) last year, so the southpaw stack hasn’t seemed to hurt them. At second base, they’ve replaced Roland Hemond reclamation special Mark McLemore with Bret Barberie, a switch-hitter who batted .301 last season with the Florida Marlins but lacks Mac’s speed and versatility. Cal Ripken at short, Leo Gomez at third (without complications this time), and catcher Chris Hoiles provide 20-plus homer potential around the infield.
The outfield holds the key to improving offensive output. Jeffrey Hammonds, coming off major knee surgery, has played just 101 big-league games, batting .299 with 11 homers, 50 RBI, and nine steals—figures that barely scratch his potential. Odds-on rookie-of-the-year favorite in 1994, the precocious Hammonds endured his sophomore jinx a year early. If he can overcome the knee problem and continue to develop—he’s beginning just his third year in pro ball after starring for Stanford and the ’92 U.S. Olympic squad—Hammonds could lend the lineup some needed punch, particularly at the bottom of the order, where he could provide a potent segue to the leadoff hitter. On the other hand, Hammonds could be the modern version of the Red Sox’s Fragile Fred Lynn, minus Lynn’s MVP rookie season.
Signing Van Slyke was a key move that revealed the Oriole lineup and outfield plan. If Van Slyke proves to be the same player he was in ’92, when he led the National League in hits and doubles while playing a Gold Glove center field, Anderson will stay put in left field and at the top of the order. If the 34-year-old Van Slyke is as spent as last year’s .246 average and 30 RBI suggest, then the Curtis Goodwin era begins, with the Orioles rolling the dice at a key spot. As general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Syd Thrift acquired Van Slyke and remade the Bucs into a three-time NL East champion. Now that Thrift is the Orioles’ director of player personnel, fans will have to wait and see whether Van Slyke’s signing is more than a stab at past glory.
If nothing else, signing Van Slyke adds a genuine character to an Oriole team full of character. Johnny Oates’ gray personality blended in with a similarly colorless clubhouse; Van Slyke is a lightning rod who gives off sparks. The Orioles have other players who can take his place on the field, but no one who can inject those intangibles. Van Slyke could be the final piece in the championship puzzle—or a reincarnation of Lynn’s disappointing tenure as an Oriole. Either way, give the Orioles credit for courting divine providence.