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For the Orioles, April Might Be Cruelest Month

April 16, 1999|THOMAS BOSWELL, Washington Post

Are the 1999 Orioles just $84 million worth of geriatric road kill?

Has any team ever been such a complete waste of money? Last season, the Orioles were paid $74 million to win 79 games. Who thought the ratio could go below $1 million per victory? You could build a team this utterly mediocre -- but a young club with a future -- for half as much cash.

Has Peter Angelos finally demoralized his franchise so totally with his ham-handed ownership that his club is beyond repair?

Are Jon Miller, Davey Johnson, Kevin Malone, Eric Davis and Rafael Palmeiro the luckiest guys in baseball? Angelos nagged, annoyed, neglected or forced 'em all out of Baltimore, though they all swore they wanted to stay.

Now, it turns out they escaped. Maybe they can join Pat Gillick, who just got exhausted with the whole mess, for a barbecue during the all-star break.

Should Ray Miller be fired into his second season as manager? His forte is supposed to be handling pitchers. Last year his staff disintegrated, largely due to injuries. This spring, it's been healthy -- and equally horrible. With the Twins, he lasted 239 games. If he makes it to July 1, he ties his old mark.

Should Cal Ripken face the rotten, miserable, no-good truth -- that, at 38, he can't hit anymore and is starting to be an embarrassment in the field, too? Should he announce that he'll retire after this season, 3,000th hit or not?

Maybe he could be the new manager. And bench himself.

Is Sidney Ponson a washout and Jesse Orosco washed up? Is it time to write this season off as a dead loss and call up Calvin Pickering, Ryan Minor, Jerry Hairston and, in a few weeks, 19-year-old lefty Matt Riley?

Hey, just thought I'd ask.

After all, the season's almost 10 games old. No use wasting a perfect good opportunity to cause trouble, do damage, settle old scores, call attention to yourself and offer no plausible solutions.

Hand me the smelling salts. For a minute, I thought I was on talk radio.

It's actually possible that some, or all, of the hyperbolic slanders cited above are actually true. But what good does it do to embrace them in April?

If Ripken is finally over the hill, that's going to make me want to cry, not cheer, after getting 17 seasons of pleasure out of watching him. His new stance may be the most undignified spectacle I've ever seen in baseball.

But, for now, for a few more weeks, don't we against hope that it works?

Ray Miller may not turn out to be much of a manager. He's a savvy, humorous, tolerant baseball lifer who has a special teaching touch with both scared kids and receptive veterans who want to learn a few new tricks. But, instead, he's in charge of a bunch of rich old stars. Maybe it's a lousy match.

Besides, Miller's a marked man. The Baltimore media enjoys tweaking the supercilious Angelos, who sometimes high hats them. So, naturally, they can't pass up a chance to fill Miller -- his dugout surrogate -- with arrows. Worse, the ultra-dedicated Miller cares so much, he takes it all personally.

If Miller is fired--and Las Vegas has the odds close to even money -- why is that such a blessing? Miller may be developing a decent relationship with Albert Belle, who has been alert on the bases and determined in the outfield. Miller has always gravitated toward unusual personalities. "I drive Randy Myers crazy," he once said. "He can't figure out why I like him." Of Belle, Miller said last week: "He has a high IQ, studies the sport, takes pride in his game and works his butt off. Yeah, I hate having guys like that."

Who else is available to manage? Don Baylor? Groove's a great guy. But he's so old school -- from a family full of state troopers and tough-love school teachers -- that his chemistry with Belle might be good. Or not good at all. (Imagine Frank Robinson and Albert.) When you have a $65 million investment in a slugger who might average 140 RBI for the next five years, you might want to ask his opinion of the manager before you fire him.

Eventually, the one fascinating managerial possibility for the Orioles would be Ripken. He says he never wants such a job -- too much time away from his family. But never doesn't always mean never.

Many assume that because he was an indifferent leader as a player, Ripken would not be a leader as a manager. On the contrary, he might be as special a manager as Larry Bird has become an NBA coach.

This team, vast as its player payroll is, has no realistic chance whatsoever for a World Series this season. From the day Davey Johnson was fired, it has been slipping backward. Perhaps much of its pain is an appropriate baseball payback for what remains the most foolishly willful of Angelos' decisions.

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