JUST LIKE OLD TIMES, Camden Yards in Baltimore rocked last weekend with the noise of fans rooting for a first-place team as it locks down a division title. The ruckus, though, was for the Boston Red Sox, who co-opted the most sublime modern ballpark as their own, landing yet another haymaker to a once-prideful culture known as The Oriole Way. The Orioles are strangers in their own land, and these days play baseball as if unfamiliar with the game itself.
Baltimore, which won five pennants and never finished below .500 between 1968 and '85, made a 10th straight losing season all but certain with a 3--16 stretch that ranks among the franchise's most abysmal displays—which is saying something considering that the O's opened 1988 with an 0--21 streak and ended 2002 with a 4--32 surrender. Baltimore gave up the most runs in any 19-game span in its history (168) and the most in a game in modern baseball history (30). Against Boston on Sept. 1, it became the fifth team in the past 50 years to get no-hit while giving up 10 runs. The O's lost games the way a homecoming football opponent should: 30--3, 11--3, 15--8, 10--0, 17--2. "Our time of possession is not real good," said first baseman Kevin Millar in a bit of gallows humor. "We need to work on it."
The Orioles were playing decent baseball for interim manager Dave Trembley before a trapdoor opened under them on Aug. 22. Hours after Trembley was given a contract for 2008, the O's allowed 30 runs to Texas. They haven't been the same since. What happened? Some of it has been bad luck and timing. By Sept. 1 five starters and the closer were hurt or traded. That left too many pitchers not ready for the big leagues.
Still, the Orioles have provided a lousy product built on a lousy business model for a decade. If you follow the stench, it leads to owner Peter Angelos, who must answer for one of the worst decades in Baltimore baseball history. Since 1993 Angelos, 78, has ripped through eight managers and six G.M.'s, lost more games than all but one other owner (Detroit's Mike Ilitch) and chased off more than 1.5 million paying customers. Baltimore's attendance has dropped from a league-best 3.6 million in 1998 to 1.9 million this year, fourth-lowest in the AL.
The O's are the worst kinds of losers: old and expensive. They have seven regulars over 30 who are producing below their career slugging averages, and all but Millar and outfielder Jay Payton are signed through 2009. What's more, according to Baseball America, the Orioles did not have any of the game's top 40 prospects at the start of the season.
The Orioles aren't close to competing in the AL East. Their goal should be to restore respectability to the franchise and convince a less captive fan base—the NFL's Ravens and NL's Nationals didn't exist when Angelos bought the team in 1993—that a plan is in place. To do that, Angelos must let president Andy MacPhail run the team, as Angelos promised upon hiring MacPhail in June.
MacPhail, 54, grew up wearing Orioles pajamas and listening, from his home down the street, to crowds cheering at old Memorial Stadium. His record is impressive. He won two championships as G.M. of the Twins and brought the Cubs to within five outs of a World Series in 2004. He is often mentioned as a successor to commissioner Bud Selig.
MacPhail has used this season largely as a fact-finding expedition, and the facts have shown that the Orioles are even worse off than he expected. The team has almost no footprint in the Dominican Republic. There is little communication between the business and baseball departments. Spring training and minor league instructional bases are on different coasts of Florida.
MacPhail intends to fix all three areas, but Angelos must give him the freedom to implement a plan without interference. Angelos should know that the minute he meddles—say, by killing a deal to trade expensive shortstop Miguel Tejada, as he has done in the past—is the minute that MacPhail, like those 1.5 million fans, turns his back on the Orioles and leaves.
Bill's Excellent Adventure
WHO is the greatest team player in NBA history? Bill Russell, with 11 championships in 13 years? Or Michael Jordan, with six rings in the modern era? That debate may never be settled, but there's a new competition between the Hall of Famers—who holds a better fantasy camp? For 11 years Jordan has run the gold standard of adult basketball instruction. Last month his annual Flight School in Las Vegas (cost: $17,500) featured a staff of 22 coaches, including Larry Brown, Chuck Daly and Dean Smith.
Now Russell is getting into the game: He will host his first fantasy camp in Las Vegas on Oct. 17--20. The staff for Bill Russell and His Legendary Friends will comprise 10 Hall of Fame players, including Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving and Charles Barkley. The cost is $15,000—just $4,000 less than Russell made with the Celtics in his rookie year. "Basically it's a fantasy camp for me," Russell (right) says. "I want to go to this fantasy camp and have all of these guys here."
GREG FIUME/GETTY IMAGES (FANS)
JOE GIZA/REUTERS (ROBERTS)
MAD HATTER Brian Roberts isn't the only one who's frustrated in Baltimore.
BRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (RUSSELL)