The Baltimore Orioles marked their final game at creaky, old Tiger Stadium by unloading their bench, such as it is, on the Detroit Tigers and romping to an 11-4 victory. But as their miserable seven-game road trip came to an end, the condemned Orioles appear even more deserving of the wrecking ball than did the crumbling fortress on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
Despite today's victory, in which Albert Belle tied a club record with four doubles and Jeff Conine homered and drove in four runs, the Orioles (58-72) still lost the three-game series and finished 3-4 against the two worst teams -- Kansas City and Detroit -- in the American League.
But beyond that, this weekend will be remembered for the combustible roster situation that ignited a pointed exchange of words within the team's management.
Today, General Manager Frank Wren refuted Manager Ray Miller's suggestion that the makeup of the aging, slow, underachieving Orioles had not progressed significantly from last season, when the Orioles finished 79-83 and in fourth place, 35 games behind the Yankees.
"I don't think it's valid at all," Wren said. "But I'm not going to get into the middle of going back and forth. That's not appropriate. . . . The similarities [between last season and this] are in the position in the standings. When you get to September and you're not in [contention], it's tough. But if you're seeing or feeling the same things [as last year], it's because of the standings. It's not based on the people on the club."
Wren sees this year, and perhaps next year as well, as ones of transition.
"The organization has made a quantum leap as far as development in the minor leagues. We're way ahead of where we were a year ago. In the majors, we've got a ways to go. . . . It's not something that happens overnight. If we can be patient and piece it together for a year or two until our players are ready, we're going to be real good."
After a second straight one-run loss to the lowly Tigers Saturday night, Miller complained of having a "dysfunctional" roster that left him shorthanded with a three-man bench and three pitchers -- Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes and Jim Corsi -- with nagging injuries. After that game, the Orioles placed Corsi on the disabled list and called up outfielder Eugene Kingsale.
"We got stuck this week with a situation where we had three pitchers who had nagging-type injuries," Wren said. "It's unfortunate, but you have to suck it up until you can get someone healthy. . . . It's nobody's fault. It's the circumstances you're in."
The Orioles had hoped to be able to play a few games shorthanded until rosters expand on Wednesday. And the Orioles wanted to avoid placing Mussina on the disabled list while he still has an outside chance of winning 20 games.
"If we were in the pennant race, we would've had three guys on the disabled list," Wren said. "When every game is so precious, you can't afford to have a 22-man roster. But we're not in a pennant race. So you get through it and try to make the best of it. . . . We wanted to give Moose a chance to reach his goals. That had as much to do with it as anything."
Today, the Orioles looked like the team Wren envisions in the future. They got 6 2/3 strong innings out of 25-year-old starter Jason Johnson (5-7), who gave up three homers but did not issue a walk. They also received major production from the middle of the order, where Belle and Conine feasted on the Tigers' young pitching staff; and assists from prospects Kingsale (1 for 4 with a double) and B.J. Ryan, who struck out two batters in his Orioles debut.
Still, the victory merely kept the Orioles one-half game ahead of last-place Tampa Bay in the AL East. It has been 11 seasons since the Orioles finished a season in last place.
Although Wren lobbied privately earlier this season for Miller to be fired, he has never criticized Miller publicly, and did not do so today. But Wren admitted his bewilderment over how a team that was first in the American League in fielding, fifth in hitting and sixth in earned run average entering today could be 14 games below .500.
"I have a difficult time justifying that," Wren said.