- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

For the better part of the last half-century, the Baltimore Orioles have been one of baseball's most identifiable franchises. From Frank Robinson to Brooks Robinson to Eddie Murray to Cal Ripken, the Orioles have always had at least one marquee player on their roster who embodied the "Oriole Way." The Oriole Way: It stood for success on the field, success in the clubhouse and success in the community. All of it done with class.
Oh, how things have changed. These days, the Oriole Way stands for losing (four straight losing seasons, to be accurate). It stands for injuries to key personnel. And it stands for an overall youth movement that has one of baseball's most identifiable franchises searching for an identity. Any identity.
As they prepare to open spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. pitchers and catchers report today the Orioles have become "Team Obscurity," a franchise without a marquee name after Ripken's retirement, Brady Anderson's release and Albert Belle's career-ending hip injury.
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift entered the offseason in pursuit of a cleanup hitter, a top-name closer, a No. 1 starting pitcher and a leadoff hitter. In the end, he signed free agent outfielder Marty Cordova and traded prospect Willie Harris to the Chicago White Sox for center fielder Chris Singleton.
Hardly the kind of players that are going to give you instant identity.
"If the team comes out and wins," Cordova said, "then you will have an identity."
Baltimore enters the 2002 season with little fanfare. Picked by nearly every major preseason publication to finish at or near the bottom of the AL East and ranked as low as 29th out of 30 major league teams (ahead of only the nearly contracted Montreal Expos), the Orioles have never opened a season with lower expectations.
Team management isn't worried.
"I'm really looking forward to this," said manager Mike Hargrove, entering his third season in Baltimore. "I think it's a very exciting time for us. We've just got to be patient and realize that these guys, it's going to take time for them to be ready to compete every day at the big-league level. But I do think night in and night out we're going to be competitive, and you know we're going to play hard."
Hargrove and Thrift point to the organization's arsenal of talented young pitching as evidence of good things to come. And considering their offense batted a league-low .248 last season, the Orioles' best chance of winning on a nightly basis will be on the strength of pitchers like Jason Johnson, Josh Towers, Willis Roberts and Jorge Julio.
But a large number of Baltimore's top prospects (pitchers John Stephens and Richard Stahl, outfielders Keith Reed and Tim Raines Jr.) are still a year or two away from becoming major-league regulars, leaving this year's roster an odd combination of young and old. Five out of eight projected regular position players are older than 30: catcher Brook Fordyce, first baseman David Segui, shortstop Mike Bordick, left fielder Cordova and right fielder Jeff Conine.
The Orioles had an opportunity to add even more veteran presence to the clubhouse, most notably slugger Juan Gonzalez, who turned down offers from Baltimore and the New York Mets to sign a two-year deal with the Texas Rangers. The Orioles also failed in attempts to sign an established closer and passed on a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Phillies that would have made budding star Scott Rolen the long-term replacement for Ripken at third base.
"We've added carefully, it's by design," Hargrove said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to add a veteran player who's going to take at-bats away from our younger people that's going to hurt us down the road. So we've tried to stay true to that line, and I think Syd's done a good job."
Thrift's failed efforts to make any major offseason moves were further hampered by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who reportedly quashed the Rolen deal upon discovering how much it would cost to sign the third baseman to a long-term contract.
Only two years ago, Angelos had one of the highest payrolls in the game, a robust $82million. This year, that figure may dip below the $50million mark. (By contrast, the New York Yankees' opening day payroll is expected to top $140million).
"Can we contend with the Yankees? Well, our payroll's going to be what it is, and the Yankees' is going to be $140million. You tell me," Hargrove said. "Can we be competitive? You bet, we can be competitive. Will we play hard? Yeah, we'll play hard. Will we make mistakes that a more experienced ballclub wouldn't make? Yeah, we'll make some mistakes. But if we learn from those mistakes and we're better because of those mistakes, then it's worth the experience."
Whether the Orioles' fan base is willing to wait it out with the team remains to be seen.

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