- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

BALTIMORE What once had the makings of a promising season for the Baltimore Orioles ended in unceremonious fashion yesterday the Orioles lost their 12th straight game, finished the year in a 4-32 tailspin and went home for the winter stewing over a disappointing 67-95 record.
Perhaps the biggest blow, though, is to come.
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, who has come under fire of late, hinted yesterday that he does not expect to return in the same capacity next season.
In a pair of interviews before the Orioles' 6-1 loss to the New York Yankees, first on Baltimore radio station WBAL and later with beat reporters, Thrift said he has made a decision about his future. He would not, however, reveal what that decision is, and he said he has not yet spoken with majority owner Peter Angelos about it.
"I'm the only one who can control my life," Thrift told WBAL. "Whatever Mr. Angelos decides to do, I'm 100 percent in support of it. I'm sure what I'm going to do. I'm absolutely sure what I'm going to do. But that's my business. What I do with my life, I will decide."
Angelos was not available for comment yesterday.
Since Thrift does not have the authority to retain himself as the Orioles' de facto general manager, it would appear as though he plans to either walk away from the game or assume a different position in the club's front office.
The 73-year-old Thrift seemed agreeable (and almost excited) at the prospect of staying with the Orioles in another capacity.
"I like baseball, I think that is kind of evident," said Thrift, who has spent eight years in the Baltimore organization, the last three in his current role. "As long as I am involved with baseball people and baseball players, especially the scouting and training of players, I am very, very happy.
"The only thing I do regret is that I have gotten my priorities out of order at times, in that I have spent way too much time in jobs like this, and I have really neglected my family. I feel bad about that."
Thrift has taken plenty of heat lately, both for the struggling club he assembled and for his lack of communication skills with other members of the organization.
He was accused over the weekend of openly criticizing manager Mike Hargrove and his coaching staff to an opposing team's general manager (Thrift denies the claim).
Thrift did not give a timetable for an announcement about his future, but given the large number of personnel decisions facing Baltimore this winter, time may be of the essence.
In the wake of their late-season collapse which included losing streaks of eight, 10 and 12 games the Orioles (Thrift included) are making no bones about the need for change.
"On August 24, we were 63-63. Since that time, we've won four ballgames," Thrift said. "That tells me that we need to do something."
First and foremost, the Orioles will look to improve an anemic offense that ranked last in the American League with a .246 batting average and struggled down the stretch to even give the club a chance of winning.
Baltimore scored three runs or fewer an amazing 81 times this season, going 8-73 in those games. Hargrove, in no uncertain terms, said yesterday what should be the club's top offseason priority.
"We need a big bat," he said. "We need to add to our offense. I think it's real important for us to have a bat in the middle of the order, so that you can start moving other people in the lineup to spots where they have a chance to succeed."
Trouble is, the Orioles don't appear to have many open roster spots to add someone via the free agent market. As many as 10 first basemen/outfielder/DH types could arrive in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., next spring to compete for five regular jobs: Jeff Conine, David Segui, Melvin Mora, Chris Richard, Jay Gibbons, Gary Matthews Jr., Marty Cordova, Chris Singleton, Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos.
It is virtually a given that some among that group will not return next year, with Singleton and Richard the most likely to be released or traded.
The other three infield positions appear to be locked up, with Tony Batista at third base and Jerry Hairston at second. Shortstop Mike Bordick, who yesterday extended his major-league record of errorless games to 110 and errorless chances to 543, may elect to retire, but has said he will consider returning if the Orioles want him back.
That doesn't mean everyone on the current roster is secure.
"You lose 95 ballgames, I think you have to leave all your options open," Hargrove said. "I don't know if anyone is untouchable."
There were some positives to come out of this season, particularly on the pitching end, where Rodrigo Lopez and Jorge Julio each made a case for AL Rookie of the Year honors.
Lopez, voted the Most Valuable Oriole by a panel of 28 writers and broadcasters, came out of nowhere to anchor Baltimore's starting rotation, leading the staff in wins (15), ERA (3.59) and innings pitched (196⅔).
Julio, a 23-year-old flame-thrower, showed the poise of a veteran reliever in assuming the club's closer role, where he finished with 25 saves and a sparkling 1.99 ERA.
But with his team out of seemingly every ballgame down the stretch, Julio made only eight appearances after Aug.24 and had no save opportunities after Aug.15 perhaps the most telling sign of the Orioles' late collapse.
For better or worse, the lasting image of Baltimore's 2002 season will not be of a scrappy ballclub fighting to reach the .500 mark in August, but of an undermanned group losing its last 12 games in September.
Taking that same club and turning it into a winner is the unenviable task awaiting Thrift, or perhaps someone else.
"This is still a big job, and whoever does it has to do it just how I described," Thrift said. "It's a huge job, a huge responsibility."


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