The final month of the baseball season is trying to play a rotten trick on the Baltimore Orioles. After a 16-3 streak against weak foes, the club is in danger of thinking it is close to being a contender next season. As the late Shirley Povich preached, "A hot September by a bad team means nothing."
This is not a franchise in need of more delusions. The worst fate for the Orioles would be to pull out a .500 finish and pretend the humiliating first half was just a bad dream. If the Orioles are lucky, the playoff-bound Yankees and Red Sox will give them a harsh reality check in the final days.
A week from now, the Orioles need to pretend that September never happened and, instead, follow the plan that seemed obvious in August. View 2000 as a rebuilding year. Develop young players gingerly. An improved farm system means, "Don't rush," rather than the opposite. To that end, give more authority to first-year general manager Frank Wren, whose background with the Florida Marlins was in player development.
In particular, let Wren hire a new manager of his own choosing. At the moment, the status of Ray Miller lies with the owner, not the general manager. The buzz at the Yard is, "Will Peter Angelos change his mind and bring Miller back?" What kind of team does business this way? Wren should be beating down Phil Garner's door, not waiting for Peter The Procrastinator to slam another window of opportunity on his own team's fingers.
Many years ago, and in 1997, too, Miller did a lot for the Orioles as a pitching coach. Nobody was better. He deserves a dignified exodus. But there's no question he should leave. Plenty of players simply don't have confidence in him anymore and, worse, use him as a convenient scapegoat.
Recently, one of the best Orioles bemoaned the contradiction between the team's fancy stats and its lousy record. Then he added that Miller might have "cost us 30 games" and "with anybody else we'd be over .500 easily."
The worst manager who ever lived probably didn't cost his team a dozen games, nor the best manager improve a club by a dozen. However, the fact that a smart player could have such a dumb idea shows why Miller's time is up. Inspirational leadership is largely smoke and mirrors. You have to fool 'em into thinking you've got magic. Miller has been out of tricks for months.
Wren and his next manager will face an offseason full of booby-trapped alternatives. Few Orioles issues are what they seem at first glance. The most deceitful end to a season is for vets to wrap up spectacular years, which they may never duplicate, while rookies, called up for September, play just well enough to provide illusions of adequacy. That's been the Orioles' fate.
For example, B.J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick had career offensive seasons while Brady Anderson had the second-best season of his life. But they're 35, 35 and 34. Don't expect the same next year. Just hope they don't fall off too much. Will Cal Ripken hit .340 again next season? If Harold Baines re-signs with Baltimore as a free agent, which is his clear preference, will he be a .600 slugger at 41?
Albert Belle's torrid September is especially bad news. If he ends up hitting .300 with 40 homers and 120 RBI, the Orioles may not trade him if somebody is foolish enough to make them an offer. Belle's been better in the outfield than expected, but as unpleasant as advertised.
Reliever Mike Timlin is another optical illusion. His ERA is down to 3.54 and his saves are up to 26. You could mistake him for a solid second-tier closer in this era of horrid pitching stats. But he's not. In the second half, he showed he'd probably be a fine set-up man with Scott Kamieniecki moving back to work the seventh inning. But dream he can close for a contender? Never again. Over the next two years, the Orioles need to develop a fireman from among their fine young arms. That's the only way they'll get a Wagner, Rivera or Wetteland. Nobody lets 'em escape.
While old Orioles have finished the season hot, the youngsters have been mildly disappointing. Not flops. Just not ready. Ryan Minor, Calvin Pickering and Eugene Kingsale are hitting a combined .192. The Braves' pitchers hit better than that. The Orioles MVP for '99 -- hitting coach Terry Crowley -- can probably fix them all, eventually. Right now, all look like future big leaguers. But none looks like the future star the Orioles need. Among the rookies, only second baseman Jerry Hairston deserves a starting job next year.
The primary reason why the Orioles (and their fans) should calm down this winter is that Matt Riley, the southpaw flash, isn't ready for a rotation spot. His curveball is superior, but, for a power pitcher, his fastball is only adequate. Is his arm just tired? Of more concern, his mound presence and command within the strike zone are nonexistent compared with Mike Mussina, Gregg Olsen and Ben McDonald at 21. Maybe that's because he's still 19.
Don't rush and ruin Riley. Sidney Ponson, 22, may already have been pushed too far too young by Miller. Beware of arm problems next year.
The Orioles' best long-term news this season may be that Wren has gotten his feet under him. After the unnecessary signings of Will Clark and Delino DeShields, who'll just have to be dumped this winter, he's been on a roll. Not trading Scott Erickson (15-12, 230 innings), a workhorse who's in his prime, was a vitally correct call. After getting good midseason value in deals for Juan Guzman and Baines, Wren signed the Orioles' top 13 draft picks, including four first-rounders.
If he's allowed to act promptly -- without long delays awaiting ownership approval -- Wren may look like a smart fellow in a couple of years. Unfortunately, that's a big if. The first test of Oriole readiness will be how quickly a new manager is hired. It should be done before the World Series. And no excuses.