- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

BALTIMORE. — Here are a few tidbits about the Baltimore Orioles newest high-priced free agent acquisition, former Atlanta Braves catcher Javy Lopez:

• Like Miguel Tejada, the first crown jewel in the Orioles’ free agent shopping spree, Lopez will not be able to wear his long-time uniform number because it has been retired. Tejada couldn’t wear No.4 because it was Earl Weaver’s number. Lopez won’t be able to wear No.8 because it was Marv Throneberry’s number.

• Lopez was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1987 by a Braves scout named Jorge Posada — yes, the father of Yankees catcher Jorge Posada.

• He won’t have to worry about being benched in Baltimore because of prima donna starting pitchers — unless, of course, the Orioles sign Greg Maddux. Wouldn’t that be rich: Maddux, the pitcher who didn’t want Lopez catching him, following him to Baltimore?

That’s not likely. But they could use a prima. Or a donna. Or anyone with a pitching resume better than, let’s say, a 68-78 career record (Omar Daal) or 21 major league starts (Eric DuBose).

The prospects of going into the 2004 season with all of this new firepower — and possibly the addition of Vladimir Guerrero — with an untested pitching rotation doesn’t seem to bother Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan, though.

“We are not afraid of that scenario,” Flanagan said. “We are confident of developing a number of our young pitchers.”

Speculation is that they will bring back Sidney Ponson to add to the mix along with Daal, DuBose, Rodrigo Lopez, Matt Riley, Kurt Ainsworth and anyone else who might emerge as a viable candidate. That seems like buying a Ferrari and running it with cheap unleaded gas, but you would think if there is one area the Orioles’ front office tandem of Flanagan and Jim Beattie know something about, it’s pitching. Between the two of them, they have 586 major league starts and 219 wins.

But while Beatagan may know pitching, they can’t teach it — not the way it can sometimes sink in for a young pitcher. They are management, and whatever they accomplished as pitchers is from another era, before some of these pitchers were even born. And sometimes not even a pitching coach as good as Mark Wiley can teach a young pitcher everything he needs to know to succeed.

Sometimes young players need a role model to show them the right way to be a major league baseball player. Sometimes a young pitcher needs a Rick Sutcliffe to show him the way.

When Johnny Oates was managing the Orioles, he wanted Sutcliffe not because he was still the pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in 1984 but because that he knew the big right-hander would be a positive influence on his young pitching tandem of Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. No one knows what kind of effect Sutcliffe had on Mussina, an independent thinker who was not easily impressed by anyone but himself. However, it was clear Sutcliffe was a major factor in the development of McDonald, who began taking his career seriously when he saw how intensely Sutcliffe prepared to pitch.

After floundering for two seasons, McDonald won 26 games in the two years Sutcliffe was on the staff. He went 13-14 in 1993, but had a career best 3.39 ERA. McDonald developed arm problems that prevented him from fully realizing his potential, but the brief success he experienced can be attributed to Sutcliffe’s presence as much as anything.

Mussina went 32-11 during Sutcliffe’s two years in Baltimore. He might have done as well without Sutcliffe around, but the fact was at the time the only veteran presence Mussina respected and listened to was Sutcliffe and not pitching coach Dick Bosman.

If the Orioles are going to go into next year with a young staff, they need a Sutcliffe. Speculation is they will bring back Sidney Ponson, but Sir Airhead is hardly the sort of veteran role model these young pitchers need.

They appeared to have that pitcher in Pat Hentgen, a 35-year-old former Cy Young winner who, while perhaps not as demonstrative as Sutcliffe, is considered a terrific role model, one who works hard and is willing to share his knowledge with young pitchers. After finally recovering from surgery, Hentgen became the club’s best starter over the final three months of the season last year, going 6-3 with a 3.16 ERA. He seemed to be the perfect guy to lead a young staff.

But for whatever reason — whether the Orioles didn’t want him enough or Hentgen didn’t want to stay in Baltimore — they parted ways. Hentgen returned to Toronto, where he had his greatest success. Now the Orioles will have to face him on a regular basis. Maybe they can learn from losing to him.


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