The Baltimore Orioles came close to meeting manager Phil Regan’s goal of finishing the first half within five games of the division leader, thanks to the pre-All-Star sweep in Chicago. In their second-half opener, the Birds battled back from a 6-0 first inning deficit provided by ace Mike Mussina, took an 8-6 lead into the eighth—and lost 9-8, courtesy of a Doug Jones blown save. The game neatly embodies the tantalizing but terrible Orioles of ’95.
The Orioles stink in large part because newcomers such as Jones have been no-shows. Andy Van Slyke came aboard late in spring training as the starting center fielder and designated clubhouse wit. Slick barely stuck around long enough for his two-month pin. He was hurt, he didn’t play particularly well when he was able, and he wasn’t really funny. He got traded for reliever Gene Harris, who brought over a history of attitude problems and a torn elbow ligament. Flanking Van Slyke, right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds was supposed to blossom into a major-league impact player in his first full season. Instead, he’s been slow to recover from off-season knee surgery, and his power stroke and speed still seem to be on the disabled list. Second baseman Bret Barberie, who hit .301 when he played for Florida, was expected to reinvigorate the dead spot created back when Bobby Grich left town. Instead, he is riding the pine and hitting .275 when he does get a shot. Sid Fernandez lost gobs of weight and was supposed to bounce back from last year’s injuries as a solid No. 4 in the American League’s deepest rotation. But Sid apparently shed the 40 pounds that knew how to pitch. This year’s free agent pitching prize, Kevin Brown, began the season as the only reliable Oriole starter, tailed off, then landed on the disabled list with a busted finger. In the bullpen, closer Jones hasn’t made anyone forget Lee Smith. The real relief story was supposed to be rookie Armando Benitez, a fire-balling righty who was expected to be taking over the closing role by now. Instead, a case of grand-slamitis sent him to the minors. He came back as a middle reliever, but has since returned to Rochester for a second tour.
There’s just one Oriole newcomer who’s having things his way so far this season: rookie manager Regan. The Bird brain trust felt compelled to make a managerial change because Johnny Oates couldn’t deal with his activist owner. When the Birds went bad, Oates’ nerves frayed, his personality hopped a roller coaster, and his team played tight. On the surface, Regan appears to be Oates Lite—another unassuming guy who’s played for winners and paid his dues to the game. Regan likes speed a little more and doesn’t play the percentages quite as slavishly as Oates, but both men understand that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.
But take a step back and you will see that Regan has tampered significantly with the contender he inherited. Regan’s moves have run from gratuitous (changing the cutoff plays) to ill-advised (shuffling the infield). His sideline tweaking has last year’s winning club struggling to play .500 baseball. The rookie manager has been granted almost complete control of the club’s roster. Say what you will about the Bird brain trust (the Fernandez fiasco comes to mind)—they are a fairly seasoned bunch with a solid track record. While Regan was still learning the managerial ropes, the Orioles’ front office created a contender out of the ashes of ’88 and has made annual improvements for most of the 90s.
Regan the personnel manager has been less impressive. Win or—more often—lose, his prints are all over his edition of the Orioles. Aside from the stars—Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro, Brady Anderson, Mussina, and Ben McDonald—Regan has messed with the roles and playing time of virtually everyone on the club (and he keeps talking about Anderson, one of the league’s best leadoff men, batting sixth).
Not one significant member of last year’s AL-best relief staff remains in the bullpen of pitching guru Regan. In the regular lineup, minor-leaguers and marginal players have moved in, doing more to strengthen Regan’s hand than the team’s record. Career minor-leaguers Jeff Manto, Terry Clark, and Mark Lee, perennial prospect Manny Alexander, and big-league preemie Greg Zaun will know who to thank when they draw a major league pension.
The odyssey of center fielder Curtis Goodwin is a good example of Regan’s strengths as a manager—and his weaknesses. He fell in love with Goodwin’s speed when he saw him in the Venezuelan winter league, and the cuddling continued during spring training. Meanwhile, the front office brought in Van Slyke, a faded carbon of the National League star of a couple years back. Regan couldn’t put Van Slyke on the disabled list quick enough, or sit him often enough, once he got his hands on Goodwin and his exceptional wheels.
A look at Regan’s playing history provides some insight into his romance with human velocity. Regan enjoyed his finest years with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the twilight of their 1960s speedy heyday, when leadoff hitter Maury Wills revolutionized the game by reintroducing the stolen base as an offensive weapon, which led to Lou Brock and then Rickey Henderson rewriting the stolen-base record book.
Goodwin is no Maury Wills, though. He isn’t Henderson either, but if he is brought along right, he could turn out to be Brock, a 3,000-hit man who ended up in the Hall of Fame. Reading Regan’s book over his shoulder, Goodwin should make a difference with his bat and wreak havoc once he does get on base. There is no doubt that he is an offensive machine, but in his first season, he has proven to be a shaky outfielder with a minus arm (the ghost of Luis Polonia comes to mind). Goodwin has something to contribute in the majors, as his .360 batting average and 17-for-20 stealing in his first 38 games demonstrate. But with less than two months of Triple A experience, playing center field for a supposed major- league pennant contender doesn’t seem like the best place for Goodwin to be honing his craft.
Based on their track records, streaky Leo Gomez and steady Barberie probably deserved more consideration than Regan gave them. Hammonds’ demotion to Bowie confused everyone, especially Hammonds—Regan will never be mistaken for his near-namesake, the Great Communicator. Alan Mills, on the other hand, should know exactly how he wound up in Rochester. Regan abuses his bullpen by getting relievers up all the time, and the manager’s quick loss of confidence in Benitez and Brad Pennington led to Mills’ warming up twice a night for weeks on end, whether or not he actually got called into the game. Given Regan’s undue fondness for warmup action, Mills suggested that he may as well begin tossing as soon as the game starts.
There are indications that Regan’s pitching crew is beginning to take shape, if not jell. Jamie Moyer is back, and the revolving door to Rochester that filled the fourth and fifth spots while McDonald and Brown mended will soon close. With the arrival of Scott Erickson, a Brown pitch-alike who also once led the AL in wins, and the return of the wounded, Regan finally has the pieces to shape the deep rotation that was supposed to be the Orioles’ strength this season.
Despite the tinkering that’s dropped a potential 90- win club under .500, Regan’s Orioles haven’t played their way out of the pennant race in a division where every team shows significant weaknesses. As the second half begins, Regan has the team he wants. He and his front office accomplices should be judged by how well he gets his team to play in the second half.