Thursday, February 28, 2008

Just Don't Compare Natty Boh to Iron City Beer

The similarities between the Orioles and Pirates only go so far

By Matthew Taylor

A memorable World Series forever links two teams in baseball memory, and in the tattered psyche of many baseball fans the most excruciating losses are often as memorable as any one victory. It’ll always be easier to recall who beat the Red Sox in 1986 than who Boston defeated in 2004 and 2007.

In Baltimore, the Orioles will forever be linked with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nowadays, that link goes beyond the 1979 World Series. For as much as the baseball world has changed since the “We Are Family” days, the two once-proud franchises share a common bond in their respective levels of futility.

I first commented on this relationship last season, when the O’s fortunes mirrored those of their NL East brethren. Sure, we hate Pittsburgh during football season, but the Iron City may as well be our Sister City come summer.

Just consider the 2007 similarities between the Pirates (68-94) and the Orioles (69-93).

The longest winning streak for each team? Pittsburgh - 5; Baltimore - 6.

Longest losing streak? Pittsburgh - 9 ; Baltimore - 9.

Most Games over .500? Pittsburgh - 3; Baltimore - 4.

Most Games under .500? Pittsburgh - 26; Baltimore - 24.

This spring, a New York Times article about the Pirates’ outlook moving forward has me thinking about the Pirates - Orioles comparison all over again. Does any of the following sound familiar?

The crowd around the fellow laughed, Coonelly walked over to absorb some abuse and offer some encouragement — “Just trust us,” and “We’re going to build with youth” — before conceding that for long-suffering Pirates fans, placation will come in wins, not words. This once-proud franchise has not posted a winning record since 1992. A 16th straight losing season this year would tie the major league record held by the positively wretched Philadelphia Phillies of 1933-48 — raising the hackles of Pennsylvanians everywhere, or at least Arlen Specter.

“The city of Pittsburgh, I don’t know how much longer they’re going to wait,” the right-hander Ian Snell said. “The losing’s got to stop somewhere.”

Two regimes ago, signing the likes of Pat Meares and Kevin Young to bamboozling long-term contracts gummed up the payroll for years. The team spent its 1999 through 2002 first-round draft choices on pitchers who all later had major surgery, raising questions about the Pirates’ scouting and development approach. More recently, marginal veterans like Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz were signed to significant contracts when commitment to youth was called for, and the right-hander Matt Morris was acquired at last year’s trade deadline, despite having $13.7 million left on his contract.

The new front office decided to keep these players and try to inspire them by proving management’s commitment: The spring training complex in Bradenton is being rebuilt, for example, and a new Dominican academy will open next summer. Bill Mazeroski, Manny Sanguillen and Kent Tekulve, all members of the Pirates’ last three World Series champions in 1960, 1971 and 1979, respectively, are in camp as instructors trying to remind players that the team was not always horrible.

Some skepticism remains, though. Coonelly and Huntington addressed the players last Thursday and promised that their commitment to smart player development would not wane — recent history to the contrary — and were understandably met with some rolling eyes.

“The players are kind of looking at us like, ‘We’ve heard this before,’ ” Huntington said. “They’re right. Most general managers and front offices come in and say they’re going to win through scouting and development. We believe it’s the execution that’s going to set us apart.”

Granted, Pittsburgh has the longer streak of losing seasons. Give the Pirates some credit, though - they were ahead of the curve on Sopranos spoofs before such a move became cliché.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Catching Up With Members of the Birds' 1996 Bullpen

No word on Manny Alexander and his 67.50 ERA from that season

By Matthew Taylor

Baltimore was the only team that would give me a chance."

-Esteban Yan, as quoted in The Sun

At this time of year many men dream of performing bunting drills and soft toss with the big leaguers, hitting the cutoff man with their hometown heroes.

Not me. I dream of playing trivial pursuit with Esteban Yan …

“Okay, guys, here’s your question: Name the first American League pitcher since the birth of the designated hitter to hit a home run in his first Major League at bat.”

“Whaddya think Esteban?”

“Uh, that’d be me.”

“Alright, fellas, this one’s for pie. Which two Oriole players were selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the expansion draft?”

“Esteban? Any ideas?”

Me again. And Aaron Ledesma.”

High fives all around ….

My dream Trivial Pursuit pairing with Esteban Yan isn’t likely to happen. However, Yan – the player I best remember as a hard-throwing “guy with potential” in the mold of Armando Benitez – might well wind up on a mound near you, O’s fans.

The 32-year-old’s effort to get back to the bigs after a year in Japan is one of the more intriguing, non-Mitchell Report storylines out of the Birds’ camp this spring.

Among those offering comment are the following: The Washington Post, The (Annapolis) Capital, The Sun, and Also check out Camden Chat and Birds in the Belfry.

Kevin Millar also has some fun with Yan on his MLB blog: “I've got to say I missed doing the diary last year, and I'd like to get on the record that big leagued me. I think they wanted to do the Esteban Yan diary or something. But now I'm back and we're giving it a second chance.”

Millar offers some interesting comments about rebuilding (“we’ve gotten better … this isn’t a long-term rebuilding process”), Dave Trembley (“How do you not respect this guy?”), and Jay Gibbons (“Why is he one of the only guys suspended?”)

If Yan does make the club here’s hoping he doesn’t ruin that perfect batting average (2-for-2 with the home run in Tampa and a single for the Cardinals in 2003) during Interleague Play.

Two comebackers

Erik Bedard isn’t the only former Bird in Seattle’s camp this spring. Arthur Rhodes, who turns 39 in October, is a non-roster invitee after missing the 2007 season following Tommy John surgery.

USA Today gives the full run-down. More info appears in articles by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, HeraldNet, and

Meanwhile, Alan Mills, who appeared with the Erie SeaWolves in a game last summer against the Bowie Baysox during his comeback attempt, has called it quits. He will serve as pitching coach this season for the Oneonta Tigers of the New York-Penn League.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Of Loewen, Markakis, and the 2002 Draft

Young O's part of The (New) Oriole Way

by Matthew Taylor

Adam Loewen faced hitters on Thursday for the first time since his surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left elbow, as reported by
The Sun and The Post.

I love the literal use of the term "faced hitters," as described by Jeff Zrebiec: "Hitters rotated into the batter's box, but rarely swung at Loewen's offerings. The purpose of the exercise was for the starting pitcher to get comfortable again throwing to actual hitters."

It's akin to saying that I faced my fear of heights by looking at a bridge rather than crossing it.

Nevertheless, the development, a case of taking baby steps before walking, is a positive one for Loewen who, with the Erik Bedard trade, becomes the most intriguing young arm in the O's rotation.

Loewen's name popped up earlier this week in a
New York Times article that had nothing to do with John McCain. The Times evaluated players selected by Billy Beane during Oakland's 2002 "Moneyball" draft.

Four of the seven players picked by Oakland (57 percent) among the first 39 picks in that draft have played in the majors, including Brown. Of the other 32 picks, 20 have played in the majors (62.5 percent).

The difference is in the number of high school players in those groups. Oakland drafted none while other teams selected 18, and 11 have played in the majors, including Prince Fielder, B. J. Upton, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, James Loney, Jeff Francoeur, Matt Cain and Adam Loewen.

From Beane’s perspective, college position players are the safest selections while high school pitchers are the riskiest. Yet Hamels, Kazmir, Cain and Loewen are pitchers drafted out of high school.

Don't tell the folks at Chipola College that Loewen was drafted out of high school. The juco claims Loewen as one of its own.

Baseball America
clarifies the situation following the 2002 draft: "The Orioles were offering around $2.5 million ... when negotiations broke down. Loewen headed to Chipola (Fla.) Junior College so he would still have an opportunity to sign with the Orioles or go right back into the draft if he didn't sign."

Things worked between the O's and Loewen, but thankfully the same couldn't be said for the Cincinnati Reds' 2002 (and 2001) draftee, Nick Markakis.

Again from Baseball America: "The Reds did not sign lefthander Nick Markakis, their 23rd-round pick from last year who came on strong this spring at Young Harris (Ga.) JC. Cincinnati offered Markakis a $1.5 million bonus, but he turned it down to try to do better in this year's draft. He is expected to go in the middle of the first round."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Putting the "O" in Hope

And I ain't talkin' about Obama (directly)

By Matthew Taylor

“It would be a pleasant surprise if we were able to win as many or more games as we were able to win last year,” said starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who was one of the few bright spots from last year’s 69-93 team. “But I think everybody is more prepared for what may come and understanding and accepting of whether we win or lose a little bit more.”

-The Sun

You know that old saying, "You've got to lose a hundred games to win a hundred games?" Me neither. But in the increasingly futile search for optimism surrounding the team I grew up with, I'm looking for the O's to turn this phrase into conventional baseball wisdom.

If one is an anomaly and two is a pattern then three Major League teams twice hitting the century mark within the span of five years - first in losses, then in wins - should qualify for adage consideration.

The Atlanta Braves accomplished the aforementioned feat in the early '90s. The Cleveland Indians followed suit in the middle of the decade. Now it's the O's turn to hit rock bottom before mountain climbing to the peak.

If memory serves

It's easy to forget how bad both the Braves and Indians once were.

O's fans likely remember Atlanta's role as the Interleague qualifying exam during the Birds' 1997 Wire-to-Wire run. Beat the Braves and the O's
could officially warrant consideration as contenders. The result? A mid-June, three-game sweep that had Charm City flying high.

As for the Indians, they offer baseball locals the memory of Albert Belle's slugging at the dish and Kenny Lofton's scampering speed in center field. Does anyone have a spare "thunder and lightning"
cliché handy?

The Birds lifted the flagging morale of local fans, dispirited by the late-season Roberto Alomar spitting incident, with an upset victory over the 99-win Tribe in the 1995 Division Series. Armando Benitez secured two of the O's three wins.

One year later the Indians returned the favor (say it with me, "Tony Freakin' Fernandez"), taking down the favored 98-win Orioles in the 1997 ALCS. Armando Benitez took two of the O's four losses.

A changed tune

Look a little deeper into the Braves' and Indians' respective team histories and you'll find a promising precedent.

The 1988 Atlanta Braves lost 106 games; in 1993 they won 104. They've eclipsed 100 wins three times since then, winning two NLCS and a World Series over - guess whom - the Cleveland Indians.

The 1991 Cleveland Indians lost 105 games; in 1995 they won 100. They've since won two ALCS.

Two teams. One hundred losses. Soon thereafter, 100 wins.

Fans in Atlanta and Cleveland went from singing the Blues to Rockin' 'n Rollin' within a five-year period.

Now for that Hope thing

The Orioles are preparing in 2008 to do what they've done only 10 times since they were known as the New York Yankees in 1901 and 1902 - lose 100 games.

The last time the Birds dropped 100 games in a season was, infamously, in 1988, when the team opened the year with 21 straight losses. They added 86 more defeats throughout the summer for a grand total of 107 losses.

One year later, in 1989, the O's made a run at the division during the famous "Why Not?" campaign. The team finished with a winning record in six of the 10 following seasons, including that ALCS berth in 1996 and the AL East Division crown in 1997.

So we've come to this.

Do the 2008 O's lack experience at the highest levels of baseball? You bet.

Are Andy McPhail and company peddling optimistic rhetoric to eager supporters? Sure thing.

Can the O's win 100 games within five years? Heck, everyone else is saying it these days, so I might as well follow suit: "Yes, We Can."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

O's Go Retro, Play Pac-Man

The '08 season invites focus on personality, potential

By Matt
hew Taylor

The Sun's Jeff Zrebiec poses "
10 Questions about the Orioles" headed into the 2008 season, including one about the newly acquired Adam Jones. Unfortunately, it's not the same question I have about our new center fielder: Can we call him Pac-Man?

So the Charm City rebuilding project, - the youth movement, if you will - the one that was supposed to begin in 1996 with the David Wells and Bobby Bonilla trades that never happened, is finally underway in earnest. No more proceeding in mostly fits with occasional starts. The O's are going to be just plain bad. The absence of a clean-up hitter and No. 1 starter affirm as much. And that's just skimming the surface.

The focus for weary O's fans is the organization's new target date (For contention? A .500 record? Four months of good baseball followed by complete collapse?) of 2010. Print the T-shirts now - "2010: A Baseball Odyssey."

In the meantime, the best plan for long-suffering loyalists trying to sustain a flagging interest in their moribund team is to focus on outstanding individual efforts. In 2008 my Nick Markakis man crush shall groweth.

You now it's bad when a club that's tried to make us believe in its alternating youth movemen
t/rotisserie ball strategy for 10 losing seasons is finally fessing up: "Oh, we're going to be bad. Real bad. Check back with us in a couple years."

Poor Dave Trembley is heading a campaig
n that isn't going anywhere. He and Dennis Kucinich should commiserate over an organic beer. Trembley/Kucinich '08 has a certain ring to it.

I suppose there has to be room
this season for optimism. For one thing, there's no reason for stress. After all, we know what's going to happen. Every victory will be a big one. And besides, it can't get any worse than 30-3, can it?