- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2004

After committing more than $100million for three high-profile free agents, a new manager and raising ticket prices at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles need to offer their fans more than what they have tolerated for six straight losing seasons.

The season starts tonight against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, where attendance has fallen by 1.4million the past six years

What is the club offering its fans? A chance to compete.

“This is not a rebuilding team, with the guys that we have,” said manager Lee Mazzilli, referring to the addition of free agents Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro to a young, promising group of hitters.

The declaration that the Orioles are not going to be a losing team already has been made by their $72million man, shortstop Tejada, despite last year’s 71-91 record.

“This is not a losing team anymore,” the former American League Most Valuable Player said when he arrived at spring training. “We are going to be a winning team. We will play like we are champions. We will play hard.”

They have played hard before, under former manager Mike Hargrove, and still lost. But the talk going into this season has been boldly about winning — even though they play in the toughest division in baseball and Mazzilli has no major league managing experience.

The Orioles will play 54 games against the Red Sox, last year’s American League wild card team; the New York Yankees, last season’s division and pennant winner; and the Toronto Blue Jays, who won 86 games last year and improved a pitching staff that already includes Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay.

To be competitive — to win — the Orioles will have to win a good portion of those games with a group of young untested pitchers frequently facing Cy Young candidates.

For example, for the next three games the Red Sox will send Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe — with 384 major league wins among them — against Sidney Ponson, who had his first winning season last year (17 wins), Eric DuBose, who has pitched 80 innings of big league ball, and Kurt Ainsworth, who has 96 innings of major league experience.

These appear to be mismatches, but Mazzilli believes that the Orioles’ lineup will help the young pitchers.

“I think our offense is going to help out pitching staff,” he said. “We score four or five runs, it takes some pressure off the pitcher. Now he knows if he gives up two runs he won’t lose the game.”

The addition of Tejada at shortstop, Lopez behind the plate and the return of Palmeiro to first base after five years away from Camden Yards adds 108 home runs and 327 RBI. Their presence is also expected to increase production from three young outfielders who showed promise last year: Jay Gibbons (23 home runs, 100 RBI), Luis Matos (13 home runs, 45 RBI, .303 average) and Larry Bigbie (nine home runs, 31 RBI, .303 average).

“To me, it is a challenge to be able to help bring this team out of the hole that they have been in for the last few years,” Lopez said. “We have a lot of talent on this team. Our concern is that we can battle against the teams in this division.”

That is the primary factor working against the Orioles — the division. Lopez may believe they have a lot of talent on the roster, but that is in comparison to what was in Baltimore before they arrived. The Yankees and Red Sox have talent at nearly every position and with nearly every pitcher. But Tejada said the Orioles won’t back down from the challenge.

“The Yankees and the Red Sox will force our team to play good baseball,” he said. “I was in that situation before [in Oakland], when Seattle and Texas had good teams, and we worked hard with a young team that was a losing team my first two years in Oakland, and after that we turned it around. We starting believing we could do it, and I hope everyone here thinks the same thing.”

They can start tonight.

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