For the last two weeks, the Orioles have been one of the hotter teams in baseball. Baltimore, however, has a problem that may prove to be far more insurmountable than its deficit in the American League East.
The Orioles are not newsworthy.
Since Earl Weaver retired, no Oriole has kicked a state trooper's car door. The Birds' rap sheet is as long as your fingernail: Nobody carries a concealed weapon or gets hauled in for doubling the speed limit. In an era when a truly modern athlete should have illegal gambling slips in one pocket and undeclared card-show cash in the other, the Orioles seem hopelessly out of date.
This team is so anti-trendy, so allergic to the appeal of negative news that, last night, when their five-game winning streak was broken, the Orioles couldn't even get no-hit -- the hottest trend of the season. Just as history came into view, Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson hit back-to-back homers in the eighth inning to obliterate Jeff Robinson's no-hit attempt.
If Manager Frank Robinson sees Bob Melvin, Brian Holton, Tim Hulett, Dave Johnson, Bob Milacki, Joe Orsulak, Joe Price, Cal Ripken and Mark Williamson whispering together in a clubhouse corner, he doesn't have to worry about a mutiny in progress. They're just a bunch of new fathers with babies at home. This is the only club that calls a team meeting to pool information on Luvs vs. Huggies.
If Craig Worthington, Gregg Olson and Billy Ripken are eavesdropping, it's because they're all newly wed and figure they'll need diapering tips eventually. The Orioles have the lowest payroll and the highest birthrate in baseball. These guys stay home at night. If an Oriole plays like he's hung over, it's probably because he had to do the 3 a.m. feeding.
If the Orioles keep playing the way they have recently -- going 12-4 to reach 47-49 -- the national media could be in a quandary. How do you report on a team that seems allergic to scandal?
Ripken advertises milk and just gave $250,000 to open a center to fight adult illiteracy. Olson, the 23-year-old all-star reliever, is the team's only confessed addict -- to Nintendo.
Ben McDonald, the 22-year-old rookie who pitched a four-hit shutout in his first major league start, gets his rush before pitching by eating a can of mustard sardines. Big Ben showed promise when he put an alligator in a teammate's bathtub during instructional league, but the Orioles asked him to stop it and he replied, "Yes sir."
This team has no idea how to handle itself in contemporary fashion. When the Orioles were 11 1/2 games behind, nobody stabbed anybody in the back. When Mickey Tettleton got mad at an umpire, Robinson charged to the plate and threw his own player out of the game. Afterward, Robinson said no ump should have to take such guff just because his players were frustrated. The next day Tettleton said, "Frank's right."
Whenever there's a chance for fun, the Orioles spoil it. Last year's big winner, Jeff Ballard (then 18-8, now 1-9), could have squawked when sent to the bullpen indefinitely. Instead, he said, "Might be a good idea." When Cal Ripken was demoted to sixth in the batting order, then asked to take special batting instruction and, finally, ordered to put down his first sacrifice bunt in eight years, his response in all cases was, "Sure, whatever I can do for the team."
When Phil Bradley showed signs of life -- looking for a fight because he hadn't been offered a contract in his option year -- Orioles President Larry Lucchino turned the other cheek, praising Bradley instead of counterattacking. The Orioles need lessons from Fred Claire and Kirk (Trade Me or I'll Punch You) Gibson of the Dodgers.
Last July the Orioles were a new story -- a whopper: the team trying to go from worst to first. In 1990 they've been snubbed, justifiably, as old news.
Nevertheless, baseball loves irony. And here it comes 'round again. Last season on Aug. 1 (after a 1-13 collapse), the Orioles' record was 54-51. By this Aug. 1, the team's mark might be almost the same.
The AL East was bad enough to help the Orioles into contention last year. Could the division be weak enough this season to make them winners?
The Toronto Blue Jays, for all their annual squandering of talent, seem too formidable a team -- since Junior Felix and John Olerud arrived -- to be beaten down the stretch. Still the Orioles, surging at the very hour when they sagged last year, have a right to their law-abiding home-body dreams.
The Orioles have made 35 fewer errors the last two seasons than any other team. And the Ripken brothers, Cal and Billy, have not made an error in their last 92 and 42 games respectively. Also, the Baltimore bullpen of Olson, Williamson, Curt Schilling and Price has been as efficient (1.66 ERA) as any in baseball.
The Orioles have scads of good, but not great, players who interlock nicely. Yet something is lacking when a team's best percentage pitcher and its best average hitter for the past two seasons are unknown nationally. Who are they? Orsulak (.294) and Williamson (18-6).
Even if McDonald proceeds toward a 200-win career and Randy Milligan's star stats (on pace for 34 homers and 285 times on base) are not a fluke, the Orioles still need a bona fide cleanup hitter and one more top starting pitcher to become a serious contender.
Maybe they will dump Bradley's $1.15 million contract and use the money toward a mega-free agent signing this winter for a 30-homer left fielder. Maybe Milacki, Ballard or both will return to their 1989 form.
But maybe the Orioles won't have to wait until next year. Maybe, in this era of Bad Boys and Nasty Boys, the Orioles can stay hot long enough to give Nice Boys a good name.