When the Baltimore Orioles went to spring training, they had three major goals. Improve their defense. Emphasize fundamentals. And get their pitchers to walk fewer men.
All three connect. If pitchers trust the gloves and the brains behind them, they'll throw strikes. That, in turn, leads to all good baseball things. When a pitcher is aggressively self-confident, he gets lucky. Even his mistakes become solo homers, not three-run homers.
Once upon a time, the Orioles tried to walk fewer than 400 men a season. At their current pace, they'll walk 600. Two hundred more walks equals 100 more runs; history says so. And 100 more runs translates into 10 to 12 fewer victories; that's another theorem based on 100 years of data. If a manager told you, "Make 'em hit it," and you had the Orioles' defense behind you, would your subconscious let you obey?
Catcher Terry Kennedy calls a good game but couldn't throw out your great aunt. Ray Knight's range at third is limited. You might as well drop a glove at second base; it would stop as many balls as Alan Wiggins and old Rick Burleson. Eddie Murray only cares when he has a bat in his hand; he'd love to be traded but his contract makes him undealable. Cal Ripken Jr., who cheats on every pitch, is only a top shortstop when he has quality control pitchers in front of him, getting batters to hit into the defense. As for the outfield, Larry Sheets is a statue. Fred Lynn will give you 100 games a year and take a hike the rest. You can throw a hat over Ken Gerhart, Jim Dwyer and Lee Lacy, but Gerhart is the best of a limited lot.
Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Luis Aparicio, Davey Johnson and Paul Blair are no longer gainfully employed on the 33rd Street diamond. Even Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich and the young Murray aren't around.
So, what can the Orioles do? Between the routine balls they aren't catching and the extra walks they are allowing, this club is probably gift-wrapping 15 to 20 victories a season for its rivals. That's just about the difference between the Orioles as they appear on paper -- a club full of former all-stars -- and the next-to-last-place team that actually competes on the field.
This problem can't be remedied just by noting its existence. But there is hope for improvement.
First, confiscate the gloves of Wiggins and Lacy. Release them, if owner Edward Bennett Williams will allow more "alimony." Both are lousy for morale when they're playing, worse when they're not. If the front office won't admit these two expensive mistakes and issue pink slips, then make Lacy a pinch hitter and Wiggins a pinch something.
Since Burleson can't hold down second base alone, bring up Pete Stanicek or steady Billy Ripken or any warm body who can field. A team on a 250-home run pace can carry one glove.
Why Lacy, 38 and hitting .230, has been given 130 at-bats is one of life's mysteries. Rookie Gerhart, Sheets (.318) or Dwyer (nine homers) could have had those hacks.
Next, hide Sheets' glove, too. Make the man the permanent DH; he's a bona fide hitter. Divvy the left and right field jobs among Gerhart, Dwyer and Mike Young. For the dozens of games when Lynn calls in sick, use them all and pray.
Knight and Kennedy try their best, so leave 'em alone. As for Murray, you can't live with his glove, but you can't live without his bat; as poor a clutch year as he's had, he's on a 32-homer, 97-RBI pace. Maybe it's time for Ripken Sr., one of the few men Murray respects, to have a talk with him or else go public with criticism. Unless Murray's eyes are worse than he admits (a possibility), his defense is very raw.
The rest is up to the pitchers. And that's a lot to ask of infants. The Orioles' only rookie who looks ready as a starter is Eric Bell, and he may be on the verge of shell shock. "A fourth or fifth starter" is how scouts view him. Mike Boddicker and, at least temporarily, Dave Schmidt offer some ballast.
Now the water gets deep. Scott McGregor seems to have reached the pathos stage of his career; still, the sight of Tommy John (7-3) makes you wonder. Why not spot-start McGregor, rest him plenty, put him in the bullpen, jump out of doorways in Halloween masks when he walks past. Try anything. It's conceivable he could fall into a second-half groove. Mike Flanagan's return still holds some interest; his stuff is good enough, but his head is on Planet X after years of injury, bad luck and mechanical changes. "It'll be nice to come back and pretend I'm 0-0," he says.
As for Ken Dixon, the man some teammates would love to use as a human handball, everybody knows he's the key. Just as Dennis Martinez and Storm Davis were before him. All Grade A arms with mystery phobias and awful production.
"The rest of us seem to nibble and have a mental block about getting ahead of hitters," Flanagan says. "We're always going 2-0. Dixon and Dennis are the only pitchers I've seen who have built a paranoia about being ahead 0-2. They either throw something so far off the plate it's useless as a setup pitch or they overthrow, trying for a perfect pitch, and hang a home run ball. It's amazing to watch. Dixon doesn't seem comfortable until the count is 2-2."
Let's not rattle any psyches, but it would be nice if the whole Orioles staff would challenge hitters, come hell or home runs, as Boddicker and Schmidt do. And it would be nice if Dixon, when he returns from last-resort AAA exile, would try to throw less-marvelous pitches once he gets ahead. Is this really too much to ask?
The story of the Orioles bullpen could probably only be done justice by Brian DePalma. The elevation of Luis DeLeon to stopper (followed by his release days later) is surely a floodmark in Orioles history. Until Don Aase returns, the late innings will remain X-rated. Aren't Don Stanhouse and his primal scream still in a slow-pitch league somewhere in California?
Until such time as the Orioles' defense improves and their pitchers throw more strikes, the issue of unearthing a relief star will remain moot, because there will be precious few leads to protect.