The stereo in the Baltimore clubhouse is turned down low, and so
are the Orioles. It is still two hours before game time last
Friday night, but there's no cell phone ringing, no pager
beeping, no Oprah blaring and no loud frat-house bantering as in
most locker rooms. A stranger off the street would be
hard-pressed to tell whether this was a first-place team, a
last-place team or the most casually attired accounting firm in
The star-studded Seattle Mariners are in town for a four-game
series, but the buzz that's building in the ballpark doesn't
penetrate the walls of the home team's dressing room. In here it
is strictly business, just another day in the Orioles' office
atop the American League East. In here it is still May, and only
amateurs and Indy Car drivers get excited in May. "A veteran
team without a lot of rah-rah stuff," says lefthander Jimmy Key,
when asked to describe his new club. "Just solid professionals
who know there's a long way to go."
It's a good thing that outfielder Brady Anderson hasn't shaved
off his trademark sideburns because on this Baltimore team they
qualify as zany. These guys are about as crazy and colorful as
IBM's Deep Blue, which is exactly the way the boss wants it.
"We've got guys who I like to call just baseball players," says
general manager Pat Gillick. "They're not concerned with
peripheral stuff. They're not worrying about what the press says
or whether the manager is going to DH them instead of play them
in the field. They just play."
Last year the Orioles made history with a major league record
257 home runs and had a dramatic run into the postseason, but
they also made a bit of a mess. There was spitting (Roberto
Alomar) and spatting (slugger Bobby Bonilla and manager Davey
Johnson) and a slo-pitch style that left management squirming.
Baltimore lost the American League Championship Series to the
eventual World Series winners, the New York Yankees, in five
games, but the Orioles' decision makers had no desire to bash
their way back into the playoffs this year. It was time for a
new approach and attitude, and maybe even a little pitching and
defense. "We were one-dimensional last year," says Gillick.
"When we won, we usually just mauled someone for nine innings."
Of course, if you listen to those fans who enjoy watching one
team maul another, Baltimore needed revamping about as much as
Rick Pitino needs a raise. Four Orioles drove in more than 100
runs, and seven hit at least 20 homers, including Anderson, the
leadoff man who set a club record with 50 dingers. "It was fun
being a part of it, but we knew we couldn't continue to win like
that," says Anderson. "We knew we had to change. There was one
thing we didn't do, and that was win the pennant. So there's
room for improvement. We can get better."
Six weeks into the 1997 season, it's hard to imagine how a
reinvented Baltimore team could get much better. In last
Thursday's opener against the Mariners, the Orioles rocked
lefthander Randy Johnson 13-3, snapping his 16-game winning
streak. Baltimore dropped the next two games but rebounded on
Sunday with a 9-5 victory. At week's end the Orioles were in
first place in the East with a 23-11 record and had the best
winning percentage (.676) in the league.
The Baltimore pitching staff, which had a 5.14 ERA last year,
was atop the league at 3.56 and had held opposing hitters to a
league-low .231 batting average. The 36-year-old Key, a free
agent who left the Yankees last winter after they refused to
give him a two-year deal, was 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA. As a
ground-ball pitcher, Key is thriving in front of an airtight
infield. "That is a big benefit to me, and another factor is the
bullpen," he says. "If any starter gets to the seventh with the
lead, he's probably going to get the win. It's just like it was
in New York last year."
With Key joining two righthanders, reliable Mike Mussina and
reinvigorated Scott Erickson, the Orioles have a starting trio
as formidable as any in the league. Mussina, who recently signed
a $21 million contract extension that will keep him in Baltimore
through the 2000 season, had a 4-1 record and a 3.57 ERA at
week's end. Usually a bust in the spring--before this season he
had been 5-15 in April for his career--Erickson had reversed
himself with a 6-1 start.
Known as a gifted pitcher whose savvy and smarts never matched
his stuff, Erickson seems to have drawn confidence from his more
poised pitching mates. On Sunday he allowed only four fly ball
outs to the 27 batters he faced in six innings. It has been four
years since Erickson, a 20-game winner with the Minnesota Twins
in 1991, finished a season with an ERA of less than 4.80, but at
week's end he was ninth in the league at 2.90. "I'm just trying
to keep up with Key," Erickson says. "I don't even know what my
stats are. I don't keep track."
Last season Baltimore pitchers threw one shutout--total. Through
Sunday they already had five this season, but only one, by Key,
was a complete game. The others involved a bullpen that is much
deeper than last year's and probably better than the Yankees'
current relief corps. A gang of four, southpaws Jesse Orosco and
Arthur Rhodes and righthanders Armando Benitez and Terry
Mathews, has consistently gotten the Orioles safely to closer
Randy Myers, who had 13 saves in his first 14 chances. At week's
end Baltimore had lost just once after taking a lead into the
seventh inning and had already won six times while scoring three
or fewer runs. On defense the addition of veteran shortstop Mike
Bordick and Cal Ripken Jr.'s shift from short to third has
turned a good defensive infield, including Alomar at second and
Rafael Palmeiro at first, into the league's best. Last year the
Orioles made history; this year they make plays. "Our pitchers
know if they throw strikes, we're probably going to make the
plays behind them," says Bordick. "It gives them more confidence
and allows them to challenge hitters more often."
On offense, it's a new ball game in Baltimore. Sluggers Bonilla,
Eddie Murray and Todd Zeile, who combined for 43 homers last
season, are gone, but the more balanced Orioles were still fifth
in the league in runs scored at week's end despite nagging
injuries that have sidelined Alomar (sprained ankle) and
outfielder Eric Davis (strained hamstring) and a 2-for-28 slump
by Palmeiro. On Sunday, Baltimore rapped 11 hits, including
three by scrappy leftfielder B.J. Surhoff, who as much as any
player personifies this year's Orioles. "If everything isn't
perfect, I know he's going to be bitching," Johnson says with a
smile. "He's a perfectionist who does everything to make himself
a better player and help his team win." Surhoff became the
fourth Baltimore player to drive in six runs in a game this
season, with three coming on a bases-loaded triple that blew
open a 3-2 game in the fifth. Seattle answered with four home
runs--all solo shots--but the Orioles were content to let their
guests play maul ball. Baltimore had a game to win.
It's not easy to find a weakness on the Orioles, unless you're
docking points for the lack of a sense of humor. After last
Friday's 8-2 loss to the Mariners, Surhoff stormed into the
clubhouse and approached public relations director John Maroon.
Surhoff was angry about an official scorer's call on a line
drive he had misplayed into a double and demanded a change.
Finally, a spoiled, surly ballplayer looking out for himself.
"Tell the official scorer I f----- up," said Surhoff. "That was
an error." These guys still point fingers. They just point them
at themselves now.
"This is the best team I've been on, and I won a world
championship [with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990]," says Davis,
who also signed as a free agent over the winter. "This is the
most talented team, the most well-rounded team, the team with
the best chance to win. No doubt about it."
The overhaul began in earnest when the Orioles didn't re-sign
free agents Bonilla and lefthander David Wells--two players who
exemplified what management felt was wrong with last year's
club. Bonilla feuded with Johnson after Johnson attempted to
make Bonilla a full-time DH. Wells represented everything that
Gillick doesn't like in a player: a free-spirited,
earring-wearing guy who did things his way. What's more, Gillick
wasn't about to give Wells the three-year contract he was
seeking, although the Yankees eventually did. Bonilla and Wells
were ostensibly replaced by Davis and Key, respectively, and the
new guys wasted no time making Gillick look smart. At week's end
Davis was hitting .395 while Key had won six of his first seven
starts. And the two of them fit into the Orioles' clubhouse like
DeNiro and Pesci in a mob movie. "Personally, I like both Bobby
and David, but they didn't respect authority," says Gillick.
"Bobby didn't get along with the manager, and it got to the
point where he was always upset. It got to be a distraction."
The Bonilla-Johnson clash carried into the off-season when
Bonilla, after signing a four-year, $24 million free-agent deal
with the Florida Marlins, said he wouldn't let Johnson "manage
my Rotisserie league team." Last week Johnson said he wasn't
sure why Bonilla remains bitter. "He ought to be thanking
someone for what he did here last year instead of still
complaining," says Johnson. "But that's Bobby being Bobby."
Bonilla still has his defenders in the Baltimore clubhouse,
which can't be comforting to Johnson. One of Bonilla's strongest
supporters is the resident icon, Ripken. In his new book, The
Only Way I Know, Ripken sides with Bonilla in the dispute with
Johnson and empathizes with Bonilla's reluctance to accept a
full-time DH role. Ripken writes, "I think Bobby Bo's a great
team player." Ripken also addresses his own reluctant shift to
third base, which in Baltimore was the most publicized move
since Robert Irsay packed the Colts into a Mayflower van and
moved them to Indianapolis in March 1984.
Last year a disgruntled Ripken went to third for six games in
midseason but returned to short after his replacement, young
Manny Alexander, struggled mightily. In his book Ripken makes it
clear that he was not happy with the way the move was handled
and knocks Johnson for "a violation of trust" because, he says,
Johnson leaked the story of the impending change to the media at
a time when Ripken thought the manager was posing the move to
him hypothetically. By all accounts Ripken was much more
agreeable to the way the shift was carried out this time and was
especially glad to spend the spring reacquainting himself with
the position he played when the Orioles brought him up in 1981.
At week's end he had mixed in seven errors with occasionally
spectacular play at third. "I was concerned early because it's
kind of scary over there," Ripken said last Saturday. "I'm going
to make mistakes, but it's exciting to get a chance to be a part
of one of the best infields in the game."
This time it wasn't just anyone shoving Ripken out of the
position he had held for 14 years. It was a rock-solid,
unassuming guy--a pocket Cal, you might call him. Bordick, who
signed a three-year, $9 million free-agent contract with
Baltimore after spending six years with the Oakland Athletics,
was struggling with the bat (.184) at week's end but playing
superbly in the field, with five errors in 160 chances. For the
first six weeks of the season, he had perhaps the toughest job
in baseball and performed admirably. "He's an accomplished
shortstop who will do anything to win," says Surhoff. "He'll
dive for a ball, turn a double play, move a runner over. Just a
Just an Oriole. That's how they make them in 1997. Even the
soon-to-be 35-year-old Davis, once considered one of the most
gifted players in the game, views himself as just another
road-tested veteran looking for a chance to win. "Look around
you," he says. "Is there a better place to play? No one in here
gets fazed by what we're doing. No one gets too high or too low.
And no one feels like he has to carry the team. This is a
clubhouse full of All-Stars."
Davis's page in the Baltimore media guide reads like a script
from Chicago Hope. A career full of injuries forced him to
retire after the 1994 season. Soon after he had surgery to
repair a herniated disk in his neck, his eighth operation in
nine years, and then made a successful comeback with the Reds in
'96. He hit 26 homers and drove in 83 runs in 129 games, but
when he became a free agent after last season, he says,
Cincinnati wasn't interested in bringing him back. He saw
nothing around the majors that compared with the situation in
Baltimore, so he signed a one-year, $2.2 million deal with an
option for '98. "I like to have a player who can do more than
just hit," says Gillick. "There are guys like Bonilla, Greg
Vaughn, Jose Canseco who can hit, but once they drop the bat,
they can't do much for you. A guy like Eric can help you in many
ways as long as you don't expect him to play 160 games. For 130
games he can be as valuable as any player in the game."
Last week, while stretching a single into a double against the
Anaheim Angels, Davis strained his right hamstring and had
missed four games through Sunday. Before the injury he had hit
in 12 of his previous 13 games, at a .500 clip, and he had given
the Orioles what Bonilla couldn't--a complete player who quietly
went about his business. But now he also had pulled up lame,
which left Baltimore wondering how much it could depend on him
during the rest of the season. For Orioles fans, it was a
glimpse of life with Eric, who can be brilliant and brittle on
the same play. He is also living, limping proof that there are
no sure things in baseball. "I will never be what everyone
thinks I should be," says Davis, who hit .293 with 37 homers and
100 RBIs in 129 games with the Reds 10 years ago. "No one was
ever satisfied with what I did, and I did a lot. It was always I
should have done this or I should have done that. I wish I never
had to hear the word potential again."
Davis made his choice and came to Baltimore, so he had better
get used to it. His team has potential. The players can stay as
quiet and low-key as they want, but word is out: The Orioles are
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Power hitters like Pete Incaviglia are scoring the hard way, pounding the base paths for front-running Baltimore. [Pete Incaviglia sliding into base]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Against Seattle, Surhoff showed he not only can drop a bunt but also can hit the long ball. [B.J. Surhoff bunting]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Bordick has had a slow start at the plate, hitting just .184, but he has been on top of things in the field. [Mike Bordick tagging baserunner]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Despite seven errors, Ripken has gotten mostly good reviews at his new old position, third base. [Cal Ripken Jr. fielding ball in game]