- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

BALTIMORE As the last bits of glittering orange confetti from Cal Ripken's farewell ceremony were being swept away by the Camden Yards grounds crew late Saturday night, the realization started to fully sink in and fans of the Baltimore Orioles were left asking a simple question:
Now what?
The answer is anything but simple. Once a model major league franchise, the Orioles have just completed their fourth straight losing season, lost the one remaining man who still represents that proud tradition and have no foreseeable reason to think they will recapture that glory in the immediate future.
The 2001 season was to be a transition year for the organization, one that would offer a heartfelt goodbye to its icon of the past two decades while simultaneously introducing a new crop of future star players to this baseball-crazed town. The Orioles made good on only one of those propositions.
Ripken was given his proper sendoff, a 31/2-month long farewell tour across America that culminated with Saturday night's emotional season finale. However, the Orioles did little to build their bridge to the next generation of ballplayers.
When trying to find explanation for Baltimore's 63-98 record, the team's worst since losing 107 games in 1988, you can join manager Mike Hargrove and point immediately to the steady stream of injuries that ravaged his roster. Albert Belle tried to play through his degenerative hip condition to no avail this spring and effectively retired. All three major winter free agent signings went down during the season: pitcher Pat Hentgen to a sprained elbow that will keep him out of next season as well, shortstop Mike Bordick to a separated shoulder and first baseman David Segui to a sprained knee that will require offseason surgery. Other key contributors like outfielders Jay Gibbons, Chris Richard and Melvin Mora and pitcher Sidney Ponson succumbed to injury at various points of the season as well.
"No one anticipated the rash of injuries we had," said Hargrove, who is 137-186 in two seasons at the helm. "I've never seen a club struggle in September, with expanded rosters, to keep enough bodies available to play."
But even without the injuries, the Orioles would have been a long way from contention in the AL East. There were still major hurdles to overcome in the starting rotation, the back end of the bullpen and, most significantly, on offense.
Devoid of both a natural leadoff and cleanup hitter, Baltimore struggled to score runs the entire season, batting an AL-worst .250 as a team while being held to five hits or less an astounding 36 times. Hargrove was left tinkering with his lineup on a daily basis in 162 games, he used 140 different batting combinations, far and away the most in the majors.
The only offensive regular who can emerge from the 2001 season with spirits high is veteran Jeff Conine, who was the runaway choice for team MVP and was the one constant in the Orioles lineup. That a 35-year-old utility player expected last spring to come off the bench contributed more offensively than anyone else speaks volumes about the current state of the Baltimore lineup.
"Offensively, we're restricted, and we need to address that," Hargrove said. "Is it vitally important? No, it's not vitally important. But it is important.
"Everything's on the table. I think we understand that we need to do something with our offense. But I also know in baseball that you can never have enough pitching."
If there was a bright spot to the Orioles' season, it was the positive development of several young pitchers, from starters Jason Johnson (who went from 1-10 a year ago to lead the staff in victories) and rookie Josh Towers (the AL's pitcher of the month in June) to potential closer Willis Roberts (who converted six of 10 saves in a limited number of appearances at season's end).
The organization faces an important winter, one in which much-maligned vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift must search for a way to complement his incredibly young and inexperienced roster with proven talent. With Ripken gone, the Orioles have no marketable name on their roster. (Longtime fan favorite Brady Anderson has one more year left on his contract but is 37 and coming off a horrific season in which he barely kept his batting average above .200, leading to speculation that the team may choose not to have him back.)
The good news for Baltimore fans is that the franchise has the money to go out and get a big-name free agent. No longer paying hefty salaries to Belle, Ripken, Delino DeShields, Mike Trombley, Chuck McElroy and Greg Myers and unlikely to re-sign Alan Mills and Jose Mercedes the Orioles' Opening Day 2001 payroll of $74 million has plummeted to about $45 million.
But convincing a top-tier free agent such as Oakland's Jason Giambi, San Francisco's Barry Bonds, Cleveland's Juan Gonzalez or Houston's Moises Alou to sign with an organization with no immediate prospects of competing is a near-impossible task for Thrift and majority owner Peter Angelos.
In all likelihood, the Orioles will be forced to find their next Cal Ripken from within their own system.
"Going into this offseason, I feel better about this ballclub than I did about the ballclub at this time last year," Hargrove said. "We want to dramatically improve. I don't know that terming next year as a go-for-it season would be fair. But I think fans should expect to see an improved product on the field next year over what they've seen this year."
Given the current state of the franchise, it may be difficult for fans to take Hargrove at his word.

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