- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Few who follow the Baltimore Orioles could legitimately say the franchise made significant strides in 2001. It's tough to find the silver lining on a 63-98 season.
Still, the Orioles' disappointing year which ended in a fourth straight fourth-place finish could be expected of a club in transition. Baltimore ended the 2000 season with a roster that included Cal Ripken, Albert Belle, Mike Mussina, Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields. One year later, none of those central figures remains with the club.
The upcoming 2002 season, however, includes no such transition. The high-priced, veteran Orioles teams of yore are no more, replaced by an overwhelmingly younger roster that features just one player with at least five years of continuous service: pitcher Scott Erickson, and he hasn't appeared in a game in 19 months after undergoing ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow.
Thus it would appear the franchise has reached a critical point in most fans' eyes. The overhaul is complete, now it's time to start seeing some results.
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift understands the urgency surrounding his club entering this season, acknowledging that 2002 is in many ways a "make-or-break" year for the Orioles.
"I think so," Thrift said. "This is really a test year. You're giving them the opportunity to see what they can do."
To that end, Thrift made few offseason alterations to his roster, not wanting to block the maturation of his raw talents with temporary veteran replacements. Baltimore's only significant moves this winter included signing free agent outfielder Marty Cordova and trading for center fielder Chris Singleton.
"The most difficult thing to do in the world is stay the course, because you know how badly we want to win," he said. "I want to win, Mr. Angelos never wants to lose a game, the manager never wants to lose. Our goal right now is to see how good we can develop a team."
But do the Orioles have to show significant progress this year for it to be considered a success?
"Absolutely," Thrift said. "I think that's an absolutely fair statement."
And at some point, that progress must show up in the won-loss column. A 68-94 record, for example, isn't going to cut it, not after four straight years with losing records.
"In my mind," said Thrift, "no."
Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove likewise senses there is pressure to show progress this year, but he isn't about to publicly state what his team must accomplish this season for it to be deemed a success.
"I learned long ago that what goals you have, if you make them public all you end up doing is putting more pressure on the process," Hargrove said. "And there's enough pressure in this game. I'm not saying that trying to hide the fact that we don't have goals. Obviously, we lost 98 games, and we don't want to lose 98 games again. We do have goals, but they are and have been established internally, and they'll stay that way."
The Orioles have maintained a loyal and knowledgeable fan base since their inception in 1954 and have drawn at least 3million fans per season since opening Camden Yards in 1992. The combination of Ripken's retirement, moderately raised ticket prices and the team's four-year losing streak may test the fans' patience, though.
All of which places a considerable amount of pressure on Thrift, now in his third year in charge of baseball operations.
"Pressure is what you live for," he said. "I strongly believe that the manager, coaching staff, me, all the people of this organization have to have a commitment to work harder and to work smarter."
In Thrift's ideal scenario, the Orioles, with a payroll that may dip below the $50million mark, would make strides this year behind a core of young players like Sidney Ponson, Josh Towers, Jerry Hairston and Jay Gibbons. They would then put themselves in a position to go after a couple of top-tier free agents to complement the current group and attempt to compete for a division title in 2003.
In theory, it makes sense. In reality?
As Thrift said, "Who knows what will happen this year?"
Notes
Pitchers and catchers workouts continued yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, with position players beginning to trickle in before tomorrow's mandatory report date. Those already in camp include infielders Hairston, Jeff Conine, Mike Bordick, Brian Roberts and outfielder Chad Allen. …
Hargrove is making a few changes in the clubhouse this year, particularly when it comes to players' and coaches' appearances. Among the new rules is a ban on facial hair mustaches are allowed, but they may not dip below the lip. Full beards, goatees and excessively long sideburns are out.


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