FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The past and future of the Baltimore Orioles were on view here this week, standing on the same field simultaneously. But what about the team's present? Is there much of one?
On one side of the field stood new Dodgers manager Davey Johnson, new Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone and, in the stands in a huge straw hat just enjoying the sun, former Orioles general manager Pat Gillick. They all looked happy--really disgustingly happy. All had generous things to say about their years in Baltimore. Thanks, Peter Angelos, for the good times. No hard feelings. Oh, to have three hypodermics full of truth serum.
Standing by the batting cage, Johnson looked years younger than when he left Baltimore 16 months ago after back-to-back trips to the American League Championship Series and a manager of the year award announced the same day he resigned from the team in frustrated disgust. "Despite my failings," he said, "somebody must be looking out for me."
Back surgery has allowed him to run a mile a day. As a result of less pain and less weight--plus a summer of globe-hopping from Scotland to Japan with his wife--Johnson looks like a new man.
"I wish the Orioles the best," he said, grinning as one current Oriole after another slapped his back or volunteered a compliment. "Albert Belle and Will Clark will help them. Clark may get a big boost from moving to a hitter's ballpark. And Albert is a serious ballplayer with a professional attitude." Bad guy? "No, no. It's not really that way."
That's easy for Davey to say. His reputation has always been that he could handle almost any superstar, no matter how big his ego, complex his personality or checkered his past. Takes one to know one, maybe. Ironically, in Belle and Clark, the Orioles have acquired exactly the kind of strong-willed but hard-nosed players you'd want a Johnson to manage. In contrast, it's Ray Miller, whose reputation is so superb with pitchers and young players, who must cope with them. Already this week one ex-Oriole everyday star -- Eric Davis -- has knocked Miller, saying that it took 81 games for the '98 Orioles to figure out their regular lineup.
Next to Johnson, and just as chipper, is a beaming Malone. If the Dodgers end up in the '99 World Series after staggering to an 83-79 mark last year, he and Johnson won't have to say, "I told you so." Everyone will be saying it for them. But that's a familiar feeling for the Orioles of this decade. Doug Melvin, Johnny Oates and Dick Bosman are all doing just fine in Texas.
"I've never figured out what Davey's 'baggage' is," Malone said. "You mean that he's won every place he's ever gone?" Unfortunately, it may be the Orioles who have baggage.
"I really like Peter. He's smart. He cares. He'll spend the money," said Malone of the owner who kept him dangling for months last summer on his future with the Orioles. "But he doesn't have a feeling for the rhythms of the game. Things need to happen at certain times. There are windows of opportunity. To re-sign a player or make a trade. To make important decisions. If you don't have a feeling for it, or wait too long, it's a real problem."
Translation: Angelos can get distracted by other projects and interests for weeks, or even months, at a time. Yet he insists on having the final say on virtually every important choice. Last season, with 14 free agents on the roster--and a front office being run by a GM (Gillick) who might retire, plus a much-in-demand assistant GM in Malone--that lack of proper focus left the Orioles as the most manic team in baseball last winter.
While necessity may be the mother of invention, is desperation the father of contention? For the short term, the Orioles have to hope so. While their chance of challenging the Yankees this season is remote, they have as much right to dream of the wild card as anybody else.
Seldom has any baseball team been blown so sky high, then utterly reconstructed, in so short a time. New GM Frank Wren must feel like he patched the hull of the Titanic in mid-Atlantic, got her to port, yet still must answer questions about why he arrived so late.
Wren already is ensured of high first-year grades no matter what. After losing Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Eric Davis, Armando Benitez, Alan Mills, Jimmy Key and Doug Drabek, this 79-83 club could've been awful. Yet, after adding, Belle, Clark, Charles Johnson, Mike Timlin, Delino DeShields and a couple of remaindered relievers (Heathcliffe Slocumb and Ricky Bones), they could be pretty good.
It's the nature of spring training--not to mention $80 million payrolls--that the only question that's permitted in March is: What will you do for us this year? How can you start writing off a season before it has started, especially when you have the third most expensive roster in the game? Yet it's the 2000 Orioles, not the '99 Orioles, who come into fairly clear focus down here.
All around the ballpark, you can see the Orioles of the 21st century. No team in baseball has a significantly better slugging prospect than 283-pound Calvin Pickering. He has homered twice here, seldom looks bad on any pitch, has tremendous opposite-field power and has the kind of monstrous minor league numbers that are almost never a fake. The next Mo Vaughn or Boog Powell? I'd take that bet. If he cuts it at Class AAA, look for him by July.