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Thursday, September 14, 2006
Orioles mired in a full-blown identity crisis

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

"We've had a Yankees dynasty. Let's have an Orioles dynasty. What's wrong with that? We've got the fan support. We've got a great local ownership group that's fully supportive of what we're trying to do. We've got the facility. It suggests something that could be very exciting."
-- Orioles owner Peter Angelos to reporters in July 1997

BALTIMORE -- Peter Angelos' ability to make gobs of money through his legal practice clearly outweighs his predictive skills -- and, his legion of critics would argue, his ability to run a successful major league franchise.

It was easy for Angelos to strut nine years ago, when Camden Yards was spanking new, smart guys like Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson were running the show in the front office and the dugout, and franchise favorites Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina were locked up to long-term deals.

To see how far the Orioles have fallen, you need only buy a ticket to a weekday game in September. Trust us -- they're not hard to find.

Monday night at Camden Yards, an announced crowd of 21,742 watched the Orioles lose 9-6 to the Yankees. Judging from the cheers when Alex Rodriguez hit a ball over the right-field fence and Kyle Farnsworth recorded the final out, at least half of were pro-Yankees.

It was enough to make Boog Powell lose his appetite.

Baltimore fans have grown accustomed to meaningless games in September. At season's end, the Orioles will be tied with Tampa Bay for the American League futility lead with nine straight losing years. Only the Pirates, who are working on their 14th straight sub-.500 finish, have been more inept.

"They've constantly straddled this line of, 'Let's see how many games we can win this year, and we'll deal with next year next year.' That doesn't work. You have to have a longer-term vision and approach, or you're going to be constantly chasing your tail."
-- An AL general manager

Fans, predictably, have decided to stay home. The Orioles rank 10th in the American League in attendance, a level they haven't seen since 1988, when they began the season with 21 straight losses and finished 54-107.

And now that the National Football League season is under way, the O's are officially an afterthought. On Sunday, the Baltimore Sun dispatched three columnists to Tampa Bay to cover the Ravens' 27-0 blowout of the Buccaneers. The city's baseball team is gradually working its way back toward the high school cross country results.

Some Orioles fans have seen enough. Randy Lotz, a local songwriter, has written a tune called "Let Go of Them O's (Mr. Angelos)." A downloadable version of his song is available for 99 cents on his Web site.

Nestor Aparicio, who owns WNST Radio in Baltimore, is organizing a "Take Back the Birds" protest for the 4:05 p.m. game with Detroit on Sept. 21. Aparicio and his fellow diehards plan to assemble at an Inner Harbor restaurant dressed in black (no orange) and march to the park in unison. They'll take their seats in the upper deck, shout "O" during the national anthem, and cheer their lungs out for the local team.

And then, at precisely 5:08 p.m. (the "5" in honor of Brooks Robinson and the "8" for Cal Ripken Jr.), they will leave the park en masse to protest what's become of the team under Angelos' ownership.

While the Orioles privately don't expect much of a turnout for the protest, Aparicio is hoping to attract at least 10,000 dissenters. He denies that his crusade is a radio station promotional stunt. Rather, he hopes to speak on behalf of demoralized club employees, alienated sponsors, silent limited partners and disenfranchised fans who cling to the hope that Angelos will sell the team.

"The situation is pretty dire unless somebody does something," Aparicio said. "Peter is myopic. He thinks they're going to get Barry Zito this offseason. He thinks if they get off to a 21-5 start next year, the ballpark will miraculously fill up and sponsors will start coming back.

"They're gone and they're never coming back, and Peter is the only one that doesn't understand that. He thinks the ballpark is empty because they've lost for nine years. He doesn't understand how angry people are at him."

Angelos didn't return a call from ESPN.com seeking comment.

Silver linings?

The Orioles' 63-82 record notwithstanding, management sees some positive signs. The team has a fine double play combination in Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts, a dynamic young closer in Chris Ray, a potential star in outfielder Nick Markakis, and the makings of a strong homegrown rotation with Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera and Hayden Penn.

"We feel like we've bottomed out and we're going in the other direction," said Jim Duquette, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "I think there's a different tone or attitude with our core fan base. 'Cautious optimism' is probably the best way to describe it."

Duquette and manager Sam Perlozzo, both under contract through 2008, are good fits in Baltimore. They're respected, understated, low-ego guys with the temperaments to operate under less than optimal circumstances. Those traits certainly come in handy here.

The Orioles' problem spots are also readily apparent. The bullpen ranks 29th in the majors with a 5.18 ERA, the first baseman are tied for 27th with 16 home runs, and the left fielders are dead last with a .681 combined on base/slugging percentage.

The timing seems fortuitous, as well. The Orioles expect to increase the payroll because of their new deal with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. They'll make a play for free agents Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee this winter, and hope they can land one of the two sluggers.

So why do so many people have so little faith that the Orioles can get it right? Some things are a given: While Angelos isn't as much of a horror show as people think when it comes to meddling in day-to-day operations, he's always a threat to gum up the works with big-picture moves.

The Orioles also have a knack for overrating their talent and thinking they're closer to contention than they really are. And since they can't compete with New York and Boston for top-tier free agents, they often wind up overpaying for second-tier talent. Even when the Orioles signed Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal three years ago, the principal competition came from Seattle and Detroit.

Two American League executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity, characterized the Orioles as a team in a perpetual identity crisis. They're resistant to a full-scale rebuild like Cleveland's Mark Shapiro did in 2002, and they're not equipped to slug it out with the AL East powers.

"They've constantly straddled this line of, 'Let's see how many games we can win this year, and we'll deal with next year next year,' " said an AL general manager. "That doesn't work. You have to have a longer-term vision and approach, or you're going to be constantly chasing your tail."

Baltimore's decision to invest $25 million in a three-year deal for third baseman Melvin Mora is a case in point. Mora is a pretty good player, but he turns 35 in February and his OPS has declined from .981 to .822 to .743 since 2004. It's hard to see where he fits in the long-term plan.

The Orioles recently had two chances to reshape the team, but missed out by pushing too hard. Before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, Duquette and executive VP Mike Flanagan were close to a trade that would have sent Tejada to Anaheim for pitcher Ervin Santana and shortstop Erick Aybar. But when the Orioles asked for a third player -- Casey Kotchman was one name prominently mentioned -- Angels GM Bill Stoneman had enough time to rethink the deal and take a pass.

Another proposed deal would have sent Tejada to Houston for Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett. But when the Orioles wanted pitching prospect Jason Hirsh instead of Everett, the Astros said no. Houston also got cold feet when word spread that Baltimore might flip Oswalt to Texas.

Nine straight losing seasons
  Record GB Finish
2006 63-82 25.5 4th
2005 74-88 21 4th
2004 78-84 23 3rd
2003 71-91 30 4th
2002 67-95 36.5 4th
2001 63-98 32.5 4th
2000 74-88 13 4th
1999 78-84 20 4th
1998 79-83 35 4th

The lack of talent in Baltimore's farm system has been a huge problem in recent years. New scouting director Joe Jordan has overseen two promising drafts. But from 1997 through 2001, the Orioles had 17 first-round or sandwich picks. Only one, Brian Roberts, is still with the big-league club.

Where have you gone, Rick Elder, Mamon Tucker and Ntema Ndungidi?

The quintessential Orioles draft came in 1999, when Baltimore had seven picks among the top 50 and selected Mike Paradis, Richard Stahl, Larry Bigbie, Keith Reed, Josh Cenate, Scott Rice and Roberts.

Two picks after the Orioles' haul was complete, Tampa Bay chose Houston high school outfielder Carl Crawford with the 52nd overall pick. Think he wouldn't look good in a Baltimore uniform right now?

Players frustrated, too

Three hours before the Orioles take the field against the Yankees, reserve infielder Chris Gomez hits plastic golf balls into a laundry basket. It's the kind of mindless, time-killing activity you see when a clubhouse is loose or has nothing much to play for.

When the game begins, it's the same old thing. The Orioles take the lead off Randy Johnson, but the Yankees bat around against Baltimore rookie Jim Hoey in the seventh inning when retread left fielder Fernando Tatis turns a routine fly ball into a bases-clearing double. In the eighth inning, Perlozzo calls on catcher Chris Widger to pinch-hit. Widger strikes out, and is now a career 1-for-44 (.023) against the Yankees.

As the losing mounts, it will surprise no one if Tejada decides to vent again and claim he wants out of Baltimore. Most of his teammates just opt to keep their mouths shut and cope. Unlike the fans, the Orioles players are contractually obligated to show up at the park every day.

"It's hard for us as players when Boston and New York come in and their guy pitches well and walks off the field to a standing ovation," Roberts said. "As someone who came up through the organization, my goal is to see this stadium packed again with Orioles fans for the right reasons: Because we're winning. It's September in a big series, and our pitcher walks off the mound and he gets the standing ovation."

Instead, Roberts looks up and sees a half-filled stadium -- and 50 percent of those fans are doing Derek Jeter "MVP" chants.

"I can't stand here and blame fans for making money on their tickets and selling them to Yankees fans when we're 20 games out," Roberts said. "But it does get old."

Said first-year Oriole Kevin Millar: "It's a beautiful stadium and a beautiful city. They've had some great tradition here over the years. But the bottom line is, we have to play better baseball and get a winning product to get our fans out to the park."

Until things change, Angelos will be the lightning rod for fan discontent. Orioles fans blame him for focusing on the Washington Nationals rather than his own team's problems. Many regard him as cheap, although you'd think the Orioles' $72.5 million payroll should at least produce a .500 team.

"People here even blame him because the team doesn't have 'Baltimore' on the front of the road uniform. That hasn't been the case since 1972," said an Orioles front office person.

Orioles fans remember 1972 with fondness. Earl Weaver was in the dugout, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson were still around, and an 84-win season was considered a downer year in Baltimore.

Now this generation of Orioles fans is haunted by a different set of memories: Angelos running Pat Gillick, Davey Johnson and radio broadcaster Jon Miller out of town; the missteps of the Syd Thrift regime; Albert Belle's hip injury; Sidney Ponson punching a judge in Aruba; Sammy Sosa losing bat speed by the hour; and Rafael Palmeiro and those infamous Vitamin B-12 shots.

Many cling to the hope that Ripken will put together a group to buy the team and that pitching coach Leo Mazzone can mold the young staff into winners. For now, the occasional Anna Benson sighting qualifies as a highlight at Camden Yards.

After Angelos' bold proclamation in 1997, hope turned to puzzlement in Baltimore. That gave way to disappointment, which regressed to anger, despair and apathy.

Now everyone but Cindy Sheehan is organizing some sort of protest. Given all the empty seats at the park, Angelos should be grateful that someone in Baltimore still cares.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.