Orioles hope MacPhail can end team's 12-year funk
The Baltimore Orioles have been so bad for so long, memories of their last winning season are starting to fade.
In 1997, Baltimore led the AL East from beginning to end. Managed by Davey Johnson and led by Cal Ripken Jr., Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles won 94 games and drew 3,711,132 fans to Camden Yards.
``The last year the Orioles had a winning record they had the highest payroll in baseball,'' said former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, a Hall of Fame member and TV color analyst for the team. ``Think about that. That certainly puts you, from an economic standpoint, at parity with other teams.''
The New York Yankees actually had a higher payroll than Baltimore in 1997. But money isn't the only factor in putting together a winning team. In 1998, when the Orioles paid their players the most, Baltimore finished 79-83.
That began a franchise-record string of losing seasons that now stands at a dirty dozen.
The Orioles have tried everything to end to their run of misery. They've secured high-priced free agents, hired veteran and first-year managers, shelled out millions for draft picks and attempted to rebuild with trades.
When Andy MacPhail took over as president of baseball operations in June 2007, he changed the philosophy of the franchise. Instead of spending owner Peter Angelos' money on top-notch free agents, he used it in a vastly different fashion.
``In my view, trying to take short cuts to get over .500 was not the way to get over .500,'' MacPhail said. ``We needed to make an investment in the infrastructure of our organization. We had to make fundamental changes in the way we did business, and that's what we've done.''
Those changes include moving the spring training site to Sarasota, setting up facilities in the Dominican Republic, the creation of an international scouting department and, according to MacPhail, ``being very aggressive in the amateur draft.''
MacPhail paid big money to get catcher Matt Wieters, considered by many to be the cornerstone of Baltimore's rebuilding effort. He also traded Miguel Tejada and star pitcher Erik Bedard for 10 players, including current standouts Adam Jones and Luke Scott along with prized pitching prospects Chris Tillman and Troy Patton.
``Those are all changes that don't bring immediate results, but they do bring results,'' MacPhail said. ``And they can bring tangible and real results, as opposed to just getting over .500.''
But Orioles fans are getting tired of waiting. Last year's home attendance, 1.9 million, was the team's lowest since 1988.
Bill Nellies, a systems analyst from Marriottsville, Md., used to go to 29 games a year as a miniplan holder. He now attends only one - Little League Day, when his son, Andrew, parades around the warning track with his teammates.
``And if it wasn't for that, I don't think I'd go,'' Nellies said. ``It's not fun to watch.''
Current manager Dave Trembley, whose reign includes a 30-3 loss to Texas, believes MacPhail's plan will ultimately bring back the fans.
``In order for it to get back on track, you have to be patient and you have to be persistent,'' he said. ``I think the quick-fix didn't work, won't work, never has worked. You have to stay the course, you have to trust your people, you have to develop better in the minor leagues and fill in the pieces accordingly with free agents that fit the bill.''
Ripken, who attends several games each season, sees promise in the McPhail plan.
``As an Orioles fan, I am excited about the young talent that Andy has assembled and the direction they are headed,'' Ripken said. ``They have a wonderful nucleus ... and now some of their young arms are starting to mature. Baltimore is a terrific baseball town, and when we win again it will be very exciting for our city.''
Why not give MacPhail's plan a chance? After all, nothing else has worked.
Following that 1997 season, Johnson resigned over a rift with Angelos. Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli and Sam Perlozzo failed to turn the team into a winner. Trembley hasn't been able to do it yet, either.
After Pat Gillick left in 1998, the front office was handled without success by Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette.
Angelos has been accused of meddling, but he's never been reluctant to open his wallet to secure talent. Unfortunately, big-name stars such as Albert Belle, Sammy Sosa, Will Clark, Joe Carter, Javy Lopez and Tejada all were unable to turn it around for Baltimore.
One reason is because the Orioles are stuck in the free-spending and vastly talented AL East.
``It's the best division in baseball, year in, year out, so you'd better be good because you know the other teams are going to be good,'' Palmer said.
Arguably no other team would benefit more from realignment than Baltimore.
``I'd like to be 29, 6-foot-3 and have a full head of hair,'' Trembley said. ``The reality is, realignment is not going to happen. So we're going to have to deal with it.''
With patience, and the hope that MacPhail's rebuilding plan actually works.