O's fast start a sign of things to come
Baltimore optimistic under stewardship of winner MacPhail
Andy MacPhail, at the tender age of 34, caught the American League and much of Major League Baseball by surprise. He assembled a multi-talented juggernaut called the Minnesota Twins, and before 1987's first snowfall, they were celebrating an unexpected World Series championship.
Four years later, he achieved the same feat, but by then, MacPhail was firmly ensconced as one of baseball's brightest young minds -- a miracle worker of sorts with a low-budget franchise.
I'm sure those two entries on MacPhail's resume jumped out at Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos last June when he decided Andy was the person who could return this once-great franchise to prominence, if not respectability.
Mentioning that background is important because prior to dropping both games of Thursday night's doubleheader against the Texas Rangers, the Orioles were 6-1, had won six straight games and had the best record in the AL.
This is a team which traded away two of its best players, pitcher Erik Bedard and shortstop Miguel Tejada, during a momentous offseason retooling. Those moves, following their 10th consecutive losing season, left little hope for 2008. Baltimore hasn't been to the postseason since 1997.
But here the giddy Orioles are, starting the season with a better record than the aristocrats of the AL East -- Boston, New York and Toronto.
My question's easy: Is this a typical April aberration, or are the Orioles destined to become Cinderella of 2008?
"We are pleased, but we understand we have to go out and duplicate it every day," he says. "Nobody's going to give us anything, but it's encouraging to go onto the field and get off to this kind of start."
Pausing, he adds: "It can only help to build confidence in the short-term and long-term future. "
Manager Dave Trembley puts it this way: "The way I feel is we have a direction and a definite plan. It started in the offseason and our Spring Training was very good. We were able to establish how we wanted to do things with an emphasis on what I call old-time baseball: pitching, defense, fundamentals."
Patience at the plate is a virtue, says Trembley, an element that has become apparent in the first seven games.
"Andy brought up some statistics at our organizational meetings last winter," offers Trembley. "Five of the eight teams in 2007's postseason were at the top of the chart in on-base percentage, in working the count and in pitches seen. We've tried to put an emphasis on that. Add situational hitting -- making productive outs, moving runners, getting guys in from third base, being able to bunt, being about to hit-and-run, being able to hit with two strikes."
The Orioles received pitchers Matt Albers (1-0, 0.00 earned run average in 6 1/3 innings) and Dennis Sarfate (2-0, 0.00 ERA in 3 1/3 innings) and left fielder Luke Scott (.500) in the trade with Houston for Tejada.
Reliever George Sherrill (0.00 ERA, four saves) and center fielder Adam Jones (.217) were acquired in the trade with Seattle for Bedard.
"We really thought Sherrill would be the guy to close, but he'd never closed before," says Trembley. "He's done a tremendous job. One of the biggest surprises has been Randor Bierd, a reliever we got in the Rule 5 Draft last year. He's got an out pitch for both right-handed and left-handed hitters ... excellent poise. He's been our diamond in the rough."
MacPhail says veterans such as designated hitter Aubrey Huff, third baseman Melvin Mora, second baseman Brian Roberts and first baseman Kevin Millar have been a solid influences on the youngsters.
Trembley says since the first day of Spring Training, "Mora seems to have a tremendous resurgence in his approach to playing the game. His leadership and enthusiasm have been superb."
Adds MacPhail: "Melvin Mora puts it best. He says, 'It's just like they tell you on the airplane. At first you have to put the mask on yourself and then help your children.'"
There's no questioning MacPhail's pedigree. He comes from one of baseball's most respected families.
I asked if when he arrived in Baltimore and surveyed the perennial losers the situation was worse or about what he thought it was.
"I probably didn't appreciate the level of difficulty as it relates to the tough AL Eastern Division," he says. "Every team is awfully solid. You have two of the game's well-financed, well-run franchises in New York and Boston. They're really different from the other 28. You have exceptional talent and pitching in Toronto, and fine young talent in Tampa.
"While I thought I understood the situation, I probably didn't get the full measure of how difficult and unforgiving this division can be."
That said, as happy as the Orioles and their fans are about the surprising start, I can't see a repeat of 1987 for MacPhail.
"To be honest, in Minnesota, I inherited a talented nucleus -- Frank Viola, Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky, Greg Gagne, Gary Gaetti," he says. "The objective there was to surround them with players who could maximize the talent we already had and upgrade the bullpen. It worked.
"The '91 team, I think, was just a real good, solid group. It's different here. In Minnesota, we didn't have to trade some of our best players early on. It was clear to all of us in Baltimore we needed to take some sort of dramatic action and improve our long-term prospects at the expense of short-term."
Attendance at Camden Yards has plummeted from an average of 45,816 in 1997 to 27,060 last season.
Baltimore has some of the best fans in the majors, but they're impatient for a winner. They're restless because they've been promised a lot during the past decade, but the franchise hasn't come close to delivering.
MacPhail says, "We've been pretty upfront and frank about what it is we're doing and why we're doing it and what the benefits are."
Given his track record, I have to believe he can turn the franchise around, but he'll do it from the ground up and certainly not overnight.
That's why Orioles fans shouldn't put too much into this month's fast start. They should, however, be encouraged.
And it's about time.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.