Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Orioles and Pirates - two of baseball’s great, traditional franchises are going on their 13th and 18th straight losing seasons

The other day I vented about The New York Mets and their unwillingness to admit to their mediocrity and clean house in an effort to actually be, well, good. That night, watching the Mets (surprise) win a game, I noticed the Blue Jays-Orioles score as it flashed across the screen. I think it was 8-2 Blue Jays in the fifth inning—something along those lines.

Of course the Blue Jays went on to win and then they won against last night. In fact, Toronto is now 12-0 against the Orioles this season and has outscored them by a margin of 68-23. That’s simply embarrassing as is the Orioles record of 31-70. It is entirely possible that they will be mathematically eliminated before Labor Day, which is extremely difficult to do.

If you’re a baseball fan on any level this is very hard to watch. Right now, two of baseball’s great, traditional franchises have become utterly pathetic: the Orioles and the Pirates. The Pirates are, if possible, worse, even though their current record is marginally better than the Orioles. For one thing, they play in a weaker division. Worse than that, there are no signs that they have any interest in actually rebuilding. This will be their record-breaking 18th straight losing season and there is no sign that streak will end anytime soon.

The Orioles are experiencing ‘only,’ their 13th losing season in a row. I tend to pay more attention to their travails for two reasons: my daughter Brigid remains a diehard fan for reasons I can’t completely fathom (she liked the mascot when she was little and still loves going to Camden Yards even now) and because I have been going to games in Baltimore on a regular basis since I was in college.

I loved Memorial Stadium. It was a great old ballpark filled with terrific fans and, to be honest, I saw no reason for the Orioles to leave. Of course I was wrong. Camden Yards was the first of the new-look ballparks and even now, in its 19th year, might still be the best of them although PNC Park in Pittsburgh is spectacular as are the parks in Texas, Seattle and San Francisco—I have trouble keeping up with the corporate names on them.

Camden Yards was a miracle when it opened in 1992 and it revitalized both the ballclub and downtown Baltimore. The Orioles had been awful in 1991; they won 89 games in 1992 and were in the pennant race until the last 10 days. Every night was a sellout back then, the team routinely drew well over 3 million fans a season even though the ballpark seated no more than 45,000 if you squeezed everyone in very tight.

It was the Orioles, in the form of Cal Ripken Jr., who helped bring baseball back after the strike of 1994-1995. Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played and the way he handled it made people believe in the game again. And, unlike the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run spree of 1998, it was real. The night of September 6, 1995 was one of the most joyous nights in sports I’ve ever witnessed.

For the next two years the Orioles made the playoffs, losing in the ALCS both years—to the Yankees in 1996 and the Indians the next year. There were storm clouds forming though: Peter Angelos, the new owner, was dubbed ‘Steinbrenner South’ (the pre-suspension Steinbrenner) because of his meddling. He ran off Pat Gillick—as good a general manager as there was in baseball. He feuded with Davey Johnson and ran him off too, losing one of the game’s best managers. He even fired Jon Miller (!!) as good a play-by-play man as there was in the game because Miller wasn’t enough of a homer.

Well, with the exception of Jim Palmer (who is untouchable because of his iconic status in Baltimore) Angelos has a bunch of homer announcers now. I certainly hope he’s happy listening to them cheerily describing one loss after another. (To be fair none of them can touch Rob Dibble in Washington when it comes to being homers, but that’s another story).

This was supposed to be the year when Andy McPhail’s work rebuilding the farm system and the franchise around young pitchers began to pay dividends. It wasn’t as if anyone expected the Orioles to challenge in the ridiculously tough American League East—remember the Blue Jays are in FOURTH place right now—but the thought was they’d be respectable; that they’d get 6-7 innings a night from the kids and maybe if everything fell right, they could break the 12-year losing skein.

Not so much. The team has been awful from the start—everyone included. Adam Jones was an All-Star a year ago; he’s hitting .273 with an OBP of .305 right now and 42 RBI’s. That’s still better than Nick Markakis, who has a solid batting average (.295) but just 33 (!!) runs batted in. The supposedly future All-Star catcher Matt Wieters was hitting .251 when he went on the disabled list earlier this month. The two most productive hitters have been journeymen Luke Scott and Ty Wigginton.

Worse though has been the pitching. The young guys have had some moments but they’ve been few and far between. They’ve all been on a shuttle to and from the minors all year long. The question is this: Growing pains or are they just not that good? If you think about it, pitching often comes down to scouting. Scouting is easy when you have the No. 1 pick and Stephen Strasburg is in the draft. The real challenge is finding guys later in the draft who become solid Major Leaguers.

Once, the Orioles were famous for finding pitching. They’re still the only team to ever have four 20-game winners on the same staff in a season in the modern era (1971). Even in the 90s they were able to sign a guy like Jimmy Key and draft a guy like Mike Mussina. They even had Jamie Moyer on the team but gave up on him a little too soon.

Plus, everything they did was done with class. There was something called, “The Orioles Way,” which meant you played the game hard and well every day, you conducted yourself with dignity as a player or a member of the organization and you were part of a team that almost always contended. About the only person who ever violated any of that was Earl Weaver and his famous temper but Weaver was so good and such a unique personality he was forgiven. When the late Johnny Oates managed the team, you couldn’t have a classier person representing you. Gillick was the same way and, arguably, the game’s best general manager of the last 30 years. All he did was build winners in Toronto (expansion team), Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia.

Now the Orioles are about to lose 100 games. Camden Yards is a ghost town except when Yankee and Red Sox fans show up to watch their team. There’s no guarantee the young pitchers will ever become good young pitchers.

Jon Miller was inducted into the Hall of Fame last Sunday. Gillick is a lock to go in someday soon. Even the Rays, who didn’t come into existence until a year after the Orioles last had a winning season, have built a solid team on a shoestring budget.

The Orioles, who made a proud baseball city so proud for so many years are an embarrassment. It is really a sad thing to watch.


Paul said...

As a Washingtonian too young to remember the Senators, I grew up going to 33rd Street and later Camden Yards as an O's fan.

That ended when the Little Greek Steinbrenner (with apologies to Greeks, and, ahem, Steinbrenner) took over the club. The Oriole Way was replaced by an impetuous owner and short-term thinking.

I realized the error of my ways in supporting this lunacy when the O's signed that noted humanitarian Albert Bell. An authority no less than John Feinstein said there could be no greater insult from the O's to their fans than asking them to "cheer for this dirtbag." Did I get the quote right? I think history has shown you were correct that time.

The Little Greek Steinbrenner can sit in his warehouse, counting his Nationals TV money from now until the end of his days. His main role now is to show the Lerner family what not to do.

Anonymous said...

I only wish their was true incentive to not continually finish last. Obviously its not a financial burden to do so and the 'fans' in these cities are just going away. I'm no soccer fan, but there is something to be said for Europe's ability to send teams to the 'minors'.

Anonymous said...

Please give us the Homer Dibble story.

Dana King said...

Interesting (to me) timing for this post. I'm in the process of re-reading Earl Weaver's book, Weaver on Strategy, which still has a wealth of valuable information for any baseball fan. I'm sure it's out of print now (Copyright 1984), and some things have changed a lot, but it's still a fun and enlightening read.

I'm a lifelong Pirates fan, and have the MLB Extra Innings package so I can see the games, as they've not been on national television since the Clinton Administration. The core of young players looks sound, and there are signs things may be turning around. The starting pitching is still suspect, and I wonder if the front office and coaching staffs have what it takes to properly develop these young players. The real question, though, is what happens when these kids become arbitration eligible and, alter, can seek free agency. Will the revolving door of trading salaries continue? Ownership says no, but it's been 18 years now, and talk is cheap. When Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez get long-term, market-value contracts, then we'll relax. A little.

Pete said...

I moved to Baltimore in late 1965 from California. My family and I were die-hard Dodger fans. We started to fall in love with the O's that summer, but when it came to the World Series we were really bummed out by their sweep of the Dodgers.

I have been a Yankee fan since moving to NY in 1973. The Yankees stunk but I knew I would spend my career in NY and made a commitment as a fan. The rest is history and it comes down to one thing:

Love him or hate him, George Steinbrenner wanted to win. I took him quite a while (suspension aided thanks to Gene Michael) to get it right on a consistent basis. But, for the fans, his commitment to winning and willingness to invest in the team was never wavering.

Contrast that with Peter Angelos, arguably the worst owner in sports. It's a crime waht has happened to Oriole baseball. Anyone familiar with Baltimore and its fan base know that it could all be turned around with better ownership and management. As a baseball fan and with a soft spot for Baltimore I hope it happens soon.

bevo said...

The Pirates exist simply to collect MLB's revenue distribution. Who would you rather support? BoSox and Yankees, whose owners are willing to spend on a fan-friendly product, or the Bucs, whose owners could care less about the fans?