- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

BALTIMORE

It is a lovely May night, temperature 74 at game time, and soft breezes waft over Camden Yards. On such a night, the hot dogs and beer taste better, and baseball really does seem like our national pastime again. Mike Hargrove, the Orioles' usually deadpan manager, even manages a little joke as he finishes his pregame meeting with reporters. When somebody thanks him, Hargrove replies, "My pleasure. I didn't say I enjoyed it I said my pleasure."

This is the kind of night, too, when fans and baseball teams are glad to be alive. Somewhat surprisingly, the Orioles indeed are alive after the season's first month. Their record is 14-10 entering the game, a dandy turnaround from last season's 6-16 start, and it has been accomplished despite some daunting handicaps.

"Albert isn't on his game yet. Cal isn't on his game yet. Harold isn't on his game yet," Hargrove has just said, referring to Messrs. Belle, Ripken and Baines, whose collective batting average of .247 doesn't seem all that much higher than their collective years. He doesn't mention that No. 1 starter Mike Mussina won one game in April, No. 2 Scott Erickson won none by dint of being on the disabled list and the bullpen provided relief only to those who might have bet on the other team.

Yet here the Orioles were, four games over .500 and acting like a possible contender (at least until the weekend, which they will spend in Yankee Stadium). The immediate opposition is the Angels, a bit of a maverick outfit themselves at 13-13 after generally being picked last in the American League West. The club is celebrating, if that's the word, its 40th anniversary a span during which the franchise operated as the Los Angeles Angels, California Angels and Anaheim Angels. You can't blame them for double-switching identities; their next pennant will be their first.

This might really be a different assortment of Angels, though. The left fielder and leadoff man, Darin Erstad, is batting an improbable .449 and had a major league-record 48 hits in April. The third baseman, Troy Glaus, is batting .319. The second baseman, Adam Kennedy, is batting .318. The starting pitcher, one Scott Schoenweis, is 4-0 after quadrupling his lifetime total of victories in April. Who are these guys?

Well, for one thing, they're young. The Angels' nine batters average 27.3 years, compared with the Orioles' doddering 33.9. Sooner or later, the O's will have to go with youth, too, but perhaps not just yet. Maybe not until owner Peter Angelos realizes, in a blinding flash of common sense, that pennants are not won by gluing together pieces of high-priced antiques and hoping for a miracle.

The Orioles' pitcher on this lovely spring night is Sidney Ponson, an atypical 23 years of age. With this team, you almost expect a babysitter to accompany him to the mound. But without even a change of diapers, Ponson retires Erstad on three pitches at a mere .444, is he in imminent danger of being farmed out? and the Angels without lasting damage in the first inning.

And then the Orioles are scoring three runs one in the third on Brady Anderson's single, two in the fourth on Jeff Conine's double and Ripken's groundout. In the fifth, Anderson homers to center field, and the Orioles lead 5-0. It doesn't last. The Angels get two back in the sixth and go ahead in the seventh when Tim Salmon and Glaus deliver souvenirs to customers in the left-field seats. It doesn't end that way. Ripken doubles home the tying run off Angels closer Troy Percival in the bottom of the ninth, Mike Bordick singles him home and the Orioles win dramatically 7-6.

Thus a lovely spring night passes, to be followed by others before the searing heat of summer and the chill winds of autumn. The Orioles advance to 15-10, yet they know the road is long and hard. The O's still look more like a .500 ballclub than anything else, but this evaluation will yield to events.

In 1989, an Orioles team that lost its first 21 games and 86 others the previous season hung in the race until the final weekend.

In 1967, an Orioles team that won the World Series the previous season and would win three of the next four pennants finished in a sixth-place tie.

So they play the games.

Perhaps Belle, homerless since April 7, will resume being obnoxious to pitchers. Perhaps Ripken will play like a man of, say, 32. Perhaps Will Clark will stay out of doctors' offices until winter, though he departed this contest early with what is diplomatically described as a slight strain of his left hamstring that renders his status day-to-day. Perhaps Bordick will continue to drive in runs like Nomar and A-Rod. Perhaps Mussina will win 23 games and Erickson 21 in a little more than five months. Perhaps the bullpen will remember that its job is to get people out. And, most of all, perhaps Peter Angelos will devote every waking moment to his law practice.

Perhaps, perhaps.

So they play the games. Always, they play the games.

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