- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

I know it's still April, but there is some evidence that this baseball season will bring wonderfully wacky developments. Consider: The Cubs and Red Sox, whose last World Series championships arrived in 1908 and 1918, respectively, are in first place. The Mariners, who don't have Alex Rodriguez, are eight games ahead of the Rangers, who do. And the Braves, who have terrorized the National League for a decade, are actually under .500.
So it goes in Major League Baseball, which is lurching toward another disastrous work stoppage next season. So let's enjoy the intrigue and idiocy while we can.
Of course, the Baltimore Orioles haven't strayed very far from form, meaning bad. Their 10-12 record might be seen as encouraging for a team that many of us expect to lose 95-100 games except that six of the victories have been against the equally lousy Devil Rays and Tigers. What happens when poor Mike Hargrove has to send his troops against real big leaguers day in and day out?
Like most unsettled teams, the Orioles have used a different lineup almost every day. There are two ways of looking at this. You could say Grover is doing a masterful job of maximizing the club's potential while getting everybody at-bats. Or you could say that not many of his employees are worth squat.
There have been so many changes that when Cal Ripken runs out to start a game, he probably trots over to the nearest teammate and introduces himself.
"Hi there, sonny, I'm Junior. Say, didn't I give you an autograph a while back?"
"No, no, Cal, I'm not one of the kids. I'm Mike Bordick played here for 3 1/2 years until the Orioles traded me to the Mets last season to start their 'youth movement.' Now I'm back, and I fit right in because I'm not even 36 yet. Don't you remember me?"
"Sorry, but I've tried to block out everything since 1983. Are you sure you're not Todd Cruz?"
Unfortunately, Ripken's bat has faded faster than his memory. He's batting an unsnappy .161 dead last on one of baseball's least offensive outfits and found himself riding the pine yesterday after hitting his first home run Wednesday night. Everybody has been saying this doesn't matter because Cal missed most of spring training because of that fractured rib, but I'm worried, folks. Who wants to see baseball's erstwhile Iron Man end his career with a season in which he hits, say, .200.
I know, I know it's early. But Ripken is 40 and counting, and right now a batting average of .200 would represent an improvement of 39 points.
Of course, Ripken has a lot of company in Doldrums City. Five other guys in black and orange are gazing up at baseball's Mendoza Line: Brook Fordyce (.135), Jerry Hairston (.178), Brady Anderson (.185), Melvin Mora (.188) and Jeff Conine (.188). The team average is .228, nobody has more than two homers and the first guy to reach 10 RBI probably will be named a partner in Peter Angelos' law firm.
Put it this way: When your two leading hitters are Greg Myers and Mike Kinkade, you know you're in trouble.
For a while early this month, it looked as if surprisingly strong starting pitching might carry the Orioles, but now that has returned to its mediocre level. Pat Hentgen is doing fine, but Jason Johnson has rediscovered his 1-10 form of last season, Sidney Ponson is on the DL, Jose Mercedes has been terrible and Chuck McElroy is demonstrating why he has been a career mopup man. Even Ryan Kohlmeier, the promising young closer, has given indication that he's not up to the job.
Fortunately, the Orioles think they have a way to bolster the starters and relievers. Unfortunately, the savior for both contingents is the same guy, Willis Roberts, who has meandered onto the scene with a 3-0 record and 1.25 ERA over 21 2/3 innings. Do you suppose he has a twin brother back home?
For some reason, the Devils Rays will come calling at Camden Yards next week for the second time in less than 18 days. After that, though, Mike Mussina and the Yankees turn up in Charm City, not a pleasant prospect. Maybe the O's should say goodbye to the .500 mark while they're still close enough to be heard.
As good old Warren Harding would have noted, normalcy has a way of rearing its boring head as seasons putter along from spring into summer. Some of the early surprises will be long forgotten by July 4, along with any hopes the Orioles might have had of fielding a winning team. Baseball can be a cruel game. In fact, it usually is.

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