Bodley: Orioles ready to compete
After long losing drought, Baltimore resurgence draws near
The Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997, the last year they made it to the playoffs. They haven't been to the World Series since 1983.
I remember when getting a ticket to Camden Yards was almost impossible. The state-of-the-art ballpark was always filled, drawing well over 3 million customers every summer. Attendance last season was down to 1,907,163, lowest since the building opened in 1992.
October 1997, when Baltimore lost to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series, seems eons ago. That jarring setback was the beginning of a free fall for this once great franchise in the AL East. It lost 1,087 games during the 12-year (1998-2009) period and finished dead last in the tough division last year, 39 games behind the champion Yankees.
Andy MacPhail, who produced World Series championships with the Twins in 1987 and 1991, was hired by owner Peter Angelos in 2007 to stop the bleeding.
After two and a half seasons, every indication points to dramatic improvement for 2010. The team manager Dave Trembley takes to Spring Training this month is the best since MacPhail came aboard -- at least on paper.
It's probably not good enough to beat the Yankees or Red Sox, but it's better -- maybe even a .500 juggernaut.
MacPhail, president of baseball operations, has wisely rebuilt the Orioles, often making hurting, if not controversial, decisions by trading away premier-level players. Instead, he's focused on the future. That's a tired cliche, but word around the Major Leagues this offseason is that there's light at the end of the tunnel for the Orioles.
"I think our course was pretty clear," MacPhail said. "I was fortunate to come here in late June [of 2007], so I had the opportunity for a couple of months to watch, listen and read. It became clear to me what we had to do to compete in this division.
"We couldn't go along with a band-aid approach. We were going to have to do something more drastic to improve the foundation of talent in our system and build upon it from there. Unfortunately, to do that we had to trade some quality players to add to the base of our talent."
This offseason MacPhail made a deal with Texas to land veteran starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. He signed infielder Garrett Atkins and left-handed closer Mike Gonzalez, both free agents.
Millwood should have a positive impact on Jeremy Guthrie and other young pitchers on the Orioles' staff.
But the move that made headlines and raised eyebrows was bringing back Miguel Tejada for $6 million to play third base. Atkins will play first base.
Yes, that Miguel Tejada!
Tejada, who played in Baltimore from 2004-07 before being traded to Houston for five players, pleaded guilty to misleading Congress in 2005 and admitted he withheld information about a former teammate's use of performance-enhancing drugs when questioned by congressional investigators. He was sentenced to probation, 100 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.
A little over six years ago Tejada, an All-Star shortstop, signed a six-year, $72 million contact with the Orioles, the richest deal in franchise history. In 2002 he was AL MVP with Oakland.
"We wanted somebody out there to help our young kids so they can begin to understand what it takes to compete and win at this level," MacPhail said. "The young guys have come up and handled themselves well and done a good job. Now, we need to show some collective progress, some progress as a team. We need to win more games and translate individual progress into meaningful wins for the franchise."
MacPhail added, "There's a lot of room for improvement and we cannot dwell on where we play, in the AL East."
Tampa Bay, with much lower revenues, a small payroll and quality young players, proved it can beat the Yankees and Red Sox, and play in the World Series.
"Our feeling is if they can do it, we can do it as well," he said. "Last year we showed progress of an individual nature, but moving forward as a team is what we have to do."
With manager Davey Johnson at the helm, a strong veteran lineup and solid pitching, it seemed the Orioles were poised for years of success in the late-1990s. Instead, Johnson left and those glory days were gone.
I asked Angelos on Monday what he thinks happened.
His answer was quick: "If you check the record, the first $10 million player occurred roughly after 1995-96. That's when the numbers [salaries] started getting out of line. And when a couple of teams decided they were going to buy their way into the World Series it became strictly a money game."
Angelos added the Orioles had great attendance, but "we didn't raise our ticket prices; we tried to keep them in the reach of the average consumer. We're in a market which requires that, so we cannot claim to be heroic."
He believes franchises such as the Orioles -- unable to generate huge revenues -- cannot remain competitive, or at least stay even with teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox.
"It's a question of how much money you can generate," he said. "Once in a while there is an exception to that rule, but it cannot be sustained year-to-year. It's an old story: How much money do you have? We're in that kind of economic system and those rules apply."
As an owner, Angelos feels there has to be a way for all the Major League teams to compete with each other.
"That's going to require probably some ingenious way of getting everyone to at least be close in the dollars they have available to pay the players they think they need to be competitive," he said.
Getting back to the current Orioles, Angelos said, "Andy is doing such a good job I don't think he needs any help from me. I'm delighted with the results he's getting."
MacPhail puts it this way: "Despite whatever inequities might exist our job is to make our team better. And we certainly had a lot of room to make our team better. We're going to make it as good as we can. That's all we can do."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.