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Orioles Should Be All Right--if Spielberg Is Named Manager

Beyond a $74-million payroll, the largest ante yet in the high-stakes American League East, the Baltimore Orioles are even richer in experience.

How rich?

The Orioles opened the season with 21 players 30 or older and only four--outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds and pitchers Mike Mussina, Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes--in their 20s. The youngest player in the opening day lineup was second baseman Roberto Alomar at 30. Three--Eric Davis, Cal Ripken Jr., and Joe Carter--were 35 or older.

There is virtually nothing that can be said about the Orioles’ age and/or experience that hasn’t been said and hasn’t prompted them to grind their dentures.

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Such as a team that favors Geritol over Gatorade.

Such as a team booked into Leisure World on the road.

Such as a team greeted on opening day by a Baltimore Sun caricature of a dinosaur in Oriole uniform with reference to Camden Yards as Jurassic Park.

“The thing about that,” said Kevin Malone, the assistant general manager, “is that Jurassic Park was a box-office hit and the dinosaurs were still standing at the end.”

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Given the payroll, the age factor, the 14 players eligible for free agency when the season ends, however, the 1998 race has been viewed as a last chance of sort for the Orioles to prove they’re not about to become extinct.

A must-win situation?

“I think it’s accurate to say that the window of opportunity for this particular group may be narrowing,” Malone said, “but given the fact we have the best park with the best fans and that we have sellouts every night, we expect to have the resources to field a team capable of winning a championship every year.

“Our only concern with the 14 players [eligible for free agency] is that they stay focused on the championship goal and not on their statistics or selfish interest.

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“Hopefully, this is where experience plays out. Hopefully, they’ll realize that if we win, they’ll be rewarded. If we win, everything will take care of itself.”

Included in that group of potential free agents are Alomar, Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key.

The Orioles won 98 games last year, going wire to wire to dethrone the dreaded New York Yankees in the East.

They defeated the Seattle Mariners in four games of the division series but lost a brilliant and bizarre championship series to the Cleveland Indians in six games despite outhitting, outpitching and outscoring the Indians.

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“Strange things happen in a short series,” Malone said, “but many felt we had the best team in baseball. We weren’t looking at drastic changes. We were looking to take the nucleus and refine it, improve the depth, add some experience.”

The off-season acquisitions included Carter (38), Doug Drabek (35), Ozzie Guillen (34) and Norm Charlton (35). Closer Randy Myers left as a free agent, and Davey Johnson quit as manager in a tumultuous clash of egos and personalities with owner Peter Angelos, who replaced Johnson with pitching coach Ray Miller. The payroll soared past the Yankees as baseball’s highest.

Now?

Well, those experienced Orioles moved into Edison Field on Monday night as co-leader in the East with an 11-6 record, having lost four in a row after earlier winning seven in a row. Mussina, the ace, is on the disabled list because of a wart on his pitching hand, Brady Anderson has struggled with a muscle strain in his neck and went on the disabled list Monday night, a Myers-less bullpen is being operated by committee and the Orioles are still searching for an offensive groove.

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“I’m not smart enough to predict how many games this team can win, but we have a very good opportunity, a very good chance,” said Ripken, who will play in his 2,500th consecutive game Saturday and dismisses the age factor as “just a topic for some people to write about.”

At 37, Ripken said, “we have a little age on us, but that’s not a factor. The experience is a definite advantage. We’ve got guys who know what it’s like to go through a long season, who have played on winning teams and in big series and who understand that in the late- season environment, when so much is at stake, that it’s still the same game. I mean, a team isn’t put together on the basis of age, it’s put together on the basis of productivity and this team can still produce. The desire to win is still there.”

So it’s not a must-win situation?

“I have a sense of urgency every year,” Ripken said. “I was on a world championship team early in my career [1983] and might not have realized how hard it would be to get back. I was also on a team that started [the 1988 season] 0 and 21, so you don’t want to see an opportunity go by when you’re on a team as good as this one. At the same time it would be a fallacy to think this is a last chance for this group. Teams change every year. It’s never the same group.”

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The Orioles have 20 players back from that 98-win season, which equates to considerable stability as well as experience.

And an experienced team should find ways to win, Malone said, adding: “We have the largest payroll and the most marquee names. We’ve improved the depth to a point where we should be able to adjust to any late-inning matchup. We’re confident we have the right cast of characters, but we have to do it on the field now.”

A team for the ages--or only the aged?


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