The last time B.J. Surhoff jogged out to left field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Opening Day, it was April 3, 2000, and the Baltimore Orioles were a far different organization than today. The payroll was $80 million. Expectations were soaring. The stars needed only one name:
Cal was at third, Brady in center, Albert in right. Tickets were impossible to score. The Orioles mattered.
On Monday afternoon, Surhoff, having returned to the team this winter, will jog to that same spot, the only remaining Orioles starter from that 2000 lineup. He is arguably the most recognizable face and name on a mostly faceless and nameless team, one that is cheaper and younger and that matters less, judging by the fact scattered tickets were still available for Opening Day as of tonight.
"I guess," Surhoff said, when it was noted that Opening Day was not sold out, "that's an indication of how things have changed around here a little bit."
That 2000 team finished with a losing record and in fourth place in the American League East, the Orioles' third straight such finish, and that streak of losing records and fourth-place finishes is now up to five, including last season's 67-95 mark, which was capped by a 4-32 finish.
And by all indications, the Orioles are still another year away at least from making a serious run at contending, the way they did regularly in the mid-1990s, reaching the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997, and still believed they could do as recently as 2000.
"We're not contenders," Manager Mike Hargrove said. "I don't mean it to sound so harsh or strong. But you look at our division, and we're not where we want to be yet as far as contending. But I feel we're very competitive. A lot of it will depend, obviously, on how well we pitch and how well we catch the ball. But also we've got to score more runs.
"I feel good about this club. It's a good bunch of guys. There's talent on this club. And while it's been awhile since the Orioles have been where we want to be, we keep making steps of progress toward that goal."
However, the Orioles are now 21/2 years into a rebuilding process that began in July 2000, when Surhoff and five other veteran players were traded in a span of 72 hours, a process that has included a front-office changeover and a complete roster makeover. From that Orioles team that opened the 2000 season, only Surhoff, Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Jeff Conine remain.
"I think it's been a slower procedure than they thought it would take," said catcher Brook Fordyce, one of the players who came to the Orioles in that infamous salary purge of July 2000. "At that point, you didn't know where it was going. They brought in a lot of young guys, but you didn't know how long they'd stick with that or go to a veteran team again."
The Orioles have stuck largely with their plan to cultivate young players. While that 2000 Opening Day lineup featured only one player (catcher Charles Johnson) who was younger than 30, the lineup the Orioles field Monday against the Cleveland Indians will feature five such players.
Paradoxically, the focus on youth pushed the Orioles' new front office -- Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, who were hired in December to replace Syd Thrift -- to sign a bevy of veterans this winter, including Surhoff, pitcher Rick Helling and utility men Jeff Reboulet and John Valentin, in order to allow the team's younger players to complete their development in the minors.
Stuck with a farm system that has not produced impact players in years -- the Orioles' top three minor league affiliates finished a combined 109 games below .500 last season -- Beattie and Flanagan began looking outside the organization for prospects. This spring, they acquired a potential future slugger, Jack Cust, in a trade with the Colorado Rockies, and claimed a potential future shortstop, Jose Morban, off waivers.
The Orioles apparently were desperate enough for future stars that they will keep Morban on their active roster, as required by baseball rules, even though he is not expected to be ready for major league action until 2005.
"We don't view this necessarily as a rebuilding process," Flanagan said. "But we are going to rebuild the minor league system along the way. When things have presented themselves, like Cust and Morban, we've acted on them. Those are just pieces of building a stronger organization.
"We're still looking to make the major league team better, and we'll be in position the rest of the summer to add pieces wherever we can."
By trimming their active-roster payroll down to about $49 million this season, and by losing out on several high-priced free agents this winter, the Orioles have positioned themselves to turn 2004 into a go-for-it season. The class of free agents coming available this winter is one of the best in recent history, including Montreal Expos right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and Oakland Athletics shortstop Miguel Tejada.
However, for now this is a team suffering an identity crisis.
For the better part of the 1980s and 1990s, the face of the Orioles was never in doubt. It had famous blue eyes and closely cropped dark hair (that got progressively grayer) and became legendary for always showing up for work. But that face vanished when Ripken retired following the 2001 season, and the Orioles are still searching for a new identity.
"There's no one face to this team," said veteran first baseman-designated hitter David Segui. "Over the course of time, there will be a face that stands out, a player who excels. It could be a Jay Gibbons. It could be a Gary Matthews, a guy who comes along and the fans take to him. That's how it develops."
"This team," Surhoff said, "is going to have to create its own identity. It takes time."
However, the team's fan base has not been very patient. The Orioles led the American League in attendance for five straight seasons beginning in 1995, but have suffered drops in each of the last four years, and last season marked the first sub-3,000,000 gate (not counting strike-shortened seasons) since Camden Yards opened in 1992. The two smallest crowds in stadium history were recorded last September, as the Orioles were in the midst of their horrid closing stretch.
"I think over the course of the summer fans will come out," Segui said. "It's up to us to bring them out. After the September we had last year, well, it was hard for me to watch, and I didn't have to pay to get in. They paid me and fed me. If you had to pay your own way . . . oh, man."
Orioles Notes: After wavering between starting Surhoff or Melvin Mora in left field Monday, Hargrove decided on the left-handed-hitting Surhoff, despite the fact the Indians will be starting a left-hander, C.C. Sabathia.
"It's something I looked at a lot and talked to lot of different people about," Hargrove said. "B.J. has swung the bat well for us this spring and he's a veteran hitter. And the last three times [this spring] he faced left-handed pitching, he did well."