Years ago, Dan Quisenberry coined a phrase that now, unfortunately, fits the Orioles: "I have seen the future. It is much like the present. Only longer."
In recent days, the sight of the Orioles attempting to play baseball against the Red Sox and Yankees has cast a dreary summer pall. This is the time of year when our interest in the game should be peaking, not waning. However, the Orioles' ineptitude in their past five defeats prompts a change in tack.
When it seems pointless to go forward, then don't. Instead, go backward. After all, it's only been 100 years since the Orioles were the fiercest, funniest, most fascinating team in baseball. Perhaps the new Orioles -- such perfect examples of their overpaid, under-performing age -- could learn something by looking back at the legendary Old Orioles of the 1890s.
Back then, players were more candid. That is, when they weren't punching each other. Faced with an Albert Belle, none of John McGraw's teammates would've been at a loss. As Dizzy Dean later said of sour Bill Terry, "Could be he's a nice guy when you get to know him, but why bother?"
Last week, a petition to boycott yesterday's exhibition game in Rochester, N.Y., was posted above Belle's locker with his signature under it. Soon, the scribble of Scott Erickson was added. Protest? Prank? Whatever the case, neither player -- one the team's most disappointing hitter, the other its most disastrous pitcher -- disavowed the petition. Immediately, the team went in the tank, trashing its realistic chances for a decent season. Coincidence?
What would the Old Orioles, and their contemporaries, have thought of such fellows? Back then, manager Ned Hanlon ordered that the foul lines be (illegally) raised so that the Orioles' bunts would roll back into fair territory. Hanlon also had cement buried in front of the plate so his Orioles could slap down on pitches for "Baltimore chop" base hits. Owner Harry Vonderhorst was so enamored of the man running his team that, when queried about his club, he simply pointed to a button on his lapel that said, "Ask Hanlon."
Paying attention, Peter Angelos?
Back then, when rival runners rounded second base, Oriole shortstop Hughie "Ee-Yah" Jennings, who had a law degree, would grab their belt for a split-second. Can you disbar an infielder? Outfielders such as Wee Willie Keeler would hide extra balls in the high grass. Current Orioles outfielders have trouble coming up with the real ball, let along keeping tabs on fakes.
The Orioles bench these days is a still life that would make Cezanne proud. Back then, the Orioles used their bench as an outpost to flash mirrors in the eyes of opposing players. Vain Joe Kelley often tucked his mirror inside his cap so that, while on defense, he could sneak looks at himself.
Now, the Orioles dive to get out of the way of close pitches. The Old Orioles not only "took one for the team" any time they could, but, on close pitches, would throw themselves on the ground in mock pain and pinch their arms to raise a welt to convince the ump that they'd been hit.
Through Sunday, as the Orioles lost five straight games to their chief rivals, they were completely docile. After nagging his relievers, Manager Ray Miller said, "If the bullpen does reasonably well, I don't know if we win any more, but they're very close games." Is John McGraw, the Little Napoleon, spinning in his grave or what? Gee, guys, let's try to lose by closer scores.
Everything about the current Orioles is reactive, not proactive. Things befall them. McGraw played third base for the Orioles in an age when players prided themselves on initiative. They believed that character is fate. Some knew the rule book so well they forced changes in it. Wee Willie figured out you could exhaust pitchers by bunting two-strike pitches foul.
Perhaps the personification of that baseball age -- its pride, its mental edge and its soul-searing intensity -- was Mike "King" Kelly of "Slide, Kelly, Slide" fame. Kelly rode to the park in silk hat, ascot and patent leather shoes, in a carriage pulled by two white horses. Except for days when the carriage was pulled by his fans. When he wasn't inventing finger signals or the hook slide, he was taking illegal shortcuts from first to third base or second base to home when the (one) umpire's back was turned.
Once, while managing, Kelly was sitting on the bench when a foul fly came back. "Kelly now catching," Kelly bellowed. Then he made the catch.
Batter out. And a new change to the rule book for substitutions.
McGraw, the quintessential Old Oriole, even when he managed the Giants, was everything the current Orioles are not. He lived for battle. To incite crowds on the road to boo (and thus motivate) his teams, he'd always call ahead to the local police chief to demand protection. Result: hostile publicity, guaranteed to stir up his own team. Now, Cal Ripken stays in a separate hotel from his mates, the better to get in and out of town quietly.
Last week, Miller said flatly that he "didn't know what to do" to get his team out of its funk. Well, that's the job, buddy, the whole, entire job. In 1911, McGraw's Giants were in third place and playing flatly. McGraw got a Kansas lunatic named Charlie Faust and put him in uniform as a good luck mascot. The team rallied to win the pennant.
Sometimes, modern players need to be reminded of the pioneers who got them -- and their agents, accountants and stockbrokers -- into the penthouse.
Next time Arthur Rhodes says he needs two innings' advance notice to warm up his tender arm, someone might mention that Cy Young needed a dozen pitches to warm up. Yet he managed to pitch 400 innings every year.
This season, the Orioles have been masters at screwing up the crucial late-inning sacrifice bunt. Perhaps they should remember Jake "Eagle Eye" Beckley, who, a hundred years ago, practiced his bunting so much that, one day, he discovered that he could soften his sacrifices better if he turned the bat around and bunted with the handle.
Finally, when choosing our standards to measure our easily excused moderns, perhaps we should remember second baseman John "Bid" McPhee. He led the league in fielding 10 times and, in 1896, set a record of .978 that stood for 23 years. McPhee still holds the record for putouts in a season with 529. So what, you say?
Bid McPhee set those records bare-handed. He refused to use a glove.
No, they don't make 'em like they used to. As the Orioles remind us almost every day.
CAPTION: John McGraw, who joined the Baltimore Orioles as a player in 1892 and played on three straight pennant winners in '94-96, was everything 1999 Orioles are not.