BALTIMORE -- The last days of baseball for a team submerged in the standings can be cold and filled with lethargy and despair. It's better than that here. A sharp wind, which a team feels more when it's in fifth place, blew through Memorial Stadium over the weekend, but otherwise the Orioles are facing the death of their season with an attitude that gives hope for life in the spring.
You can see a big part of the future in the 6-foot-7 fastballing right-hander (Ben McDonald), and a middle infield of Ripkens. The rest you have to imagine. But you can conjure a pleasant vision fairly easily. The Orioles surely will deal, and how could they go so wrong again as the Phil Bradley-for-Ron Kittle trade? Their injured -- Randy Milligan, Mark Williamson -- should heal. Their prospects are numerous, more so with the expanded September roster of farmhands.
"There are so many young guys here," said pitcher Dave Johnson, "and I don't think they're thinking of money at this point as much as a place on the team."
The roster is eclectic and large enough to require temporary lockers in every cranny of the clubhouse. It includes a 139 1/2-pound left-handed pitcher named Dan Boone from a construction job and the seniors league who somewhere along the way of his checkered career left a wakeup call with a motel operator who said, "Sure, and your roommate is Davy Crockett."
The Orioles' future might not include Dan Boone but the present is right for him (he has a 0.00 ERA) -- and in a lost-cause September he helps keep the team's mood about as light as his own Willie Shoemaker frame.
Roland Hemond reflects the serious side of things. The general manager, effusive following several days of meetings, will be working to satisfy Manager Frank Robinson's offseason wish list of hitting and pitching help. "We looked at our own organization and the other 25 organizations," Hemond said during the Orioles' weekend sweep of Milwaukee. "Overall our farm system is going well. We want more punch, more power."
He sounded excited and upbeat, hoping that next September in Baltimore will bring the heat of a pennant race.
For now, fans get by with parkas and blankets and warming thoughts of what might be in '91. The most compelling figure is the largest, McDonald. He went nine strong innings Sunday, allowing only one run, on a wind-blown homer. He didn't even have his curveball working. "I was basically a one-pitch pitcher," he said. "But I was throwing it pretty much where I wanted to."
That's the beauty and the glory of McDonald -- overpowering but not wild, almost untouchable when the curve works.
Yet he was high on the list of injured Orioles this season, pulling a muscle in his side during spring training. He didn't make his first Orioles start until July 21. At that, he has seven wins and has pitched well except against Boston. "A very good outing, a very good outing," said Robinson, eager to have McDonald for a full season for the first time.
The costliest injury was to Milligan. Hustling, he plowed into Oakland catcher Ron Hassey at home plate Aug. 7 and separated a shoulder, leaving his big season short-circuited at 20 home runs and 58 RBI. The collision came at the beginning of the road trip that started the Orioles' downfall. "Moose Milligan was the heart of the order and he was delivering," second baseman Bill Ripken said. "Anytime something happens to the middle of the lineup, it's trouble."
"You can't measure it in numbers," Hemond said. "Batters complement one another."
One number can be measured. Cal Ripken is in danger of finishing his first Orioles season with fewer than 20 home runs. He has 19. (Where would Ripken be with Eddie Murray of 1990 hitting behind him? was the conversation on one Baltimore radio talk show. In his later days in Baltimore, Murray distressed nearly every caller.)
Bill Ripken was hurt. So were pitchers Bob Milacki, Williamson and Johnson. As a postscript, Gregg Olson was slowed. By then, too many parts had been missing to offset the lost production from Jeff Ballard and Milacki. "I'm real happy to be able to show that I'm back," said Johnson, after winning Saturday night in his third start since coming off the disabled list. He had a lower back strain.
Johnson is a recent Baltimore icon who grew up in Middle River, Md., and was living in a trailer last summer when he finally made it as a 29-year-old major league rookie. Now he lives in a house.
Johnson happily was taking calls on a Home Team Sports pregame show Sunday when his first coach from Little League -- Doris -- phoned to say of Dave the Kid: "He was gutsy. He had it all. He was good." To which Johnson responded, "You knew something I didn't know."
In the clubhouse Johnson tried to rationalize his injury. "In the spring," he said, "I just wanted to make the rotation. Then I had the chance to win 17 or 18. I'm disappointed, but only minimally so. I have 12 and I still can win 14. I never would have dreamed of it."
The banter between Dave and Doris typified the atmosphere at Memorial Stadium over the weekend. It was casual and hopeful, a time to drink coffee and size up the young players:
Steve Finley has hit over .300 since Aug. 8 and looks like the everyday right fielder next season. In left field, Brady Anderson's ability to hit remains a question. Mike Devereaux continues capably in center and hits with some power. The season may be winding down, but Devereaux has been working on his batting. "I'm trying to wait longer," he said after a Saturday night homer. He waited on his pitch and homered again Sunday.
The missing outfielder -- and top-of-the-order hitter -- is Bradley, dealt to the White Sox after he expressed his displeasure with the team while conducting his contract negotiations. He was seeking three years. Bill Ripken wouldn't comment when asked how much Bradley is missed, but Johnson said of the trade, "It was just one of those things that didn't work out."
"We had no definite indication we'd be able to sign him at the end of the year," said Hemond.
Bob Melvin was the right-handed designated hitter Saturday, Mickey Tettleton on Sunday -- which means that Kittle is No. 3 among right-handed designated hitters.
Chris Hoiles was being watched closely behind the plate. If he could come on, the Orioles wouldn't be pressed to meet Tettleton's contract demands. Yet Tettleton's stock rose slightly Sunday when Hoiles injured his shoulder on a throw to second.
Could Leo Gomez at third base be good enough to let Craig Worthington go in a trade? Gomez played a ball Saturday like a matador faced with an onrushing bull; he stepped to the side and swept his glove down like a cape. Fortunately, he got it. A couple of times on Sunday, he looked like Brooks Robinson, and got three hits. "He's just a little nervous the first few games," said McDonald, speaking like a veteran. "He's going to get better and better. I played with him for a month and a half at Rochester and he can play."
David Segui, a switch-hitting first baseman, is not a power hitter, but he's hit for average in the minors and plays good defense. What to do with him when Milligan returns is the question.
Pete Harnisch, Jose Mesa, Anthony Telford and the Orioles' most touted minor league pitcher, Mike Mussina, are often mentioned as contenders for next spring's rotation.
Dan Boone is not. But he's already accomplished every man's dream of pitching in the majors when it didn't seem possible. In 1981 and 1982, Boone pitched for San Diego and Houston. He pitched for Tucson in 1983, for Vancouver in 1984, for a team in Alaska in 1985, nowhere in 1986 and an over-30 weekend league in San Diego in 1987-89. Through a friend, he hooked on last winter with the Bradenton Explorers, a senior league team. Birdie Tebbetts saw him and signed him for Rochester.
"He said he was looking for somebody who'd come up with a new pitch since he was in the major leagues," said Boone, who developed his knuckle ball during his 2,907 days between big-league appearances. The last time a pitcher went longer between major league appearance was in the '70s when Jim Bouton went eight years 42 days.
At 36, Boone has no illusions. "At my age," he said, "the doors shut real easy." But he shut down the Brewers after coming in from the bullpen Saturday night to the "Ballad of Daniel Boone." Sunday he packed for Yankee Stadium. "I've never been there," he said, all fired up and wishing the days were longer in the sweetest September he's ever known.