By Phil Jackman
Not since the turnip truck chugged in from St. Louis nearly 60 years ago have the Orioles faced such an awesome task as confronts them with spring training about to commence.
Perhaps you recall some of the cast that showed up that fateful day in that well-known garden oasis of the southwest, Yuma, Ariz.
How about Frank Fanovich; Bob Habenicht; and Vern Bickford, who once pitched a no-hitter for the Boston Braves against the Brooklyn Dodgers? I was at the game, which is the reason I mention Bickford. Certainly these guys weren't on the way to Cooperstown, but the team had some serviceable flingers (Duane Pillette, Marlin Stuart and Howie Fox).
The everyday players were OK, too -- Billy Hunter, Vern Stephens, Bobby Young and Dick Kryhoski, a decent infield, and Dick Kokos, Jim Dyck, Don Lenhardt, Vic Wertz and Sam Mele, veterans who were all capable hitters at one time.
Oh, what a fun bunch. They were preparing for a 1954 season during which they lost 100 games (they only played 154 games back then, remember.) Nobody really expected much, because the Orioles' predecessors, the Browns, had fallen on tough times since winning an American League pennant about a decade previous.
The whole thing was under the direction of general manager Art Ehlers, manager Jimmy Dykes and farm director Jim McLaughlin, all who knew their way around in the game. They proved this almost immediately by fleeing Yuma for Daytona Beach, Fla., the next spring and improving their scouting department from just 11 talent seekers to 27 during the first year.
Even back then, there was cause for hope, as Baltimore, to its credit, always leaned toward pitching, which it still does today, believe it or not. There were some young guys with live arms in Don Larsen, Bob Turley and Ryne Duren. They didn't stick around and have healthy careers here, but they did lead to a huge trade with the Yankees, which helped.
Those Orioles waved bye-bye to the 100-loss season immediately, going 57-97 during their second year and 69-85 during their third. You better grab a seat before hearing what the Birds did during only their fourth season. They played .500 ball (76-76). Think the brain trust down at Camden Yards would sign up for that right now?
The next two years were leveling years, but, in the process, the O's were slipping by a couple teams in the final standings and, in 1959, finished one game behind Boston, two behind Detroit and just five behind the Yankees. Not only was the first division in sight, the famed "Kiddie Korps" of manager Paul Richards was just about completed.
Look at these pitching numbers for the 1960 season, when the team won 89 games and lost 65: Chuck Estrada, 18-11; Milt Pappas, 15-11; Jack Fisher, 12-11; Steve Barber, 10-7. Also on the staff were Skinny Brown, 12-5, and Hoyt Wilhelm, 11-8. The next year, the team went 95-67, but those damn Yankees, with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hitting a home run every 20 minutes or so, won 109 games, and Detroit wasn't bad either, with 101.
The point of this stroll down memory lane (finally) is, think back to the day when Baltimore celebrated its return to the major leagues in 1953-54.
The town had been terrifically successful in the Triple-A International League, winning at least 100 games for eight straight seasons, and oldtimers are quick to tell you how good those teams of the '40s were. Hey, how come Howie Moss isn't in the Hall of Fame?
There's no set answer to how long a losing team should take to turn things around and become respectable, then a contender. How long has it been since the Orioles played .500 ball, 14 years? Seems like twice that. That's woeful. Several teams have been down to the depths during the last 15 years and found their way back.
The Pirates, for instance, currently have more sub-.500 seasons than the Orioles, but they at least are giving the impression that they're in the midst of recovering. They were better than .500 at the All-Star break last summer.
Look just down the road. Washington picked up a franchise from Montreal just a few years ago, and don't look now, but the Nationals were one game less than the break-even point in 2011. Their best pitcher is coming back from arm surgery and they have had a terrific winter, making deals and improving the club.
Baltimore has tried a couple of different approaches to correct its problems -- co-general managers, by committee, cheaply, throwing money around, a GM who has had pretty good success elsewhere and remembers when the Orioles had winning records and titles for three decades, field managers who have interviewed well -- all adding up to sorry results.
Perhaps the Birds' new guy, Dan Duquette, who hasn't been around the big league scene for about nine years, returns with some worthwhile ideas, such as setting up a minor league system in which young players actually develop and don't just put in their time before coming here and failing.
We're with you, Danny boy -- win, lose or draw (better scratch the lose).
Issue 170: February 2012