The Once-Proud Orioles

Gerald Seff, a lifelong Orioles fan, examines the downfall of the Baltimore Orioles after decades of prominence, and how the team can return to its glorious roots in the upcoming MLB Draft.

The Once-Proud Baltimore Orioles

By Gerald Seff

If this reporter had a dollar for
every time he read “the once proud Baltimore Orioles franchise”,
he could almost buy the team. For years that intolerable phrase has
haunted the Orioles. This article seeks to provide some answers to
the question: What happened to the Baltimore Orioles?

First, let me establish my
credentials as a die-hard, committed and even impassioned follower of
the Baltimore Orioles. My love affair (figuratively, of course) began
in 1953 when, as a 10 year old, I attended my first game. The
Orioles were then in the International League as the Triple A
affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. The game I attended was at
the old and long-departed Municipal Stadium which was in a state of
rehabilitation. For years this monstrosity had served as the home of
the minor league Orioles whose earlier park, known appropriately as
Oriole Park, burned down in 1944. The International League Orioles
had actually won the Little World Series (a name that survives to
this day) in 1944. Not surprisingly any vestige of the old Oriole
Park when up in flames. For the next 10 years the Orioles toiled in
obscurity as a minor league affiliate.

Then in the fall of 1953 the owner
of the St. Louis Browns, Bill Veeck, in dire financial straits
decided to sell this now defunct team to Baltimore. The transfer of
the St. Louis Browns marked the rebirth of the Major League Orioles.
The last time Baltimore had a franchise in the Major Leagues was in
1901 when the team moved to New York to become the Highlanders. The
latter eventually became known as a team, you might have heard of,
the New York Yankees.

The return of Baltimore as an
American League franchise was indeed a red letter day for Charm City.
On April 15, 1954 the new Orioles were feted with a downtown parade,
and the players and their manager, Jimmy Dykes, were cheered as
they rode through a cold and persistent drizzle. The atmosphere was
indeed electric, and it was followed by a successful Opening Day
that could not be dampened by the weather. The Os
won 3-1 behind the solid pitching of Bullet
Bob Turley, and solo home runs by Clint Courtney and Vern Stephens.
This reporter attended that memorable game with his father and
younger brother. This experience reinforced my undying affection for
the Orioles. That year the O’s went on to a record of 54-100. Who
cared? Baltimore was back in the majors.

The next five years were
permeated with one losing season after another. The luster of
returning to the American League was beginning to dissipate, but
then a sudden change (after 5 years of repeated losing) occurred,
beginning with the infusion of new and exciting players. The decade
of the 1960’s and 1970’s were the crowning years of the Baltimore
Orioles as Hall of Famers punctuated the roster beginning with the
incomparable Brooks Robinson followed by the wondrous Jim Palmer, the
Cincinnati transplant but true Oriole Frank Robinson, the feisty
bantam roster manager Earl Weaver, and in the 1970’s and 1980’s
switch-hitting first baseman Eddie Murray and the incomparable Iron
Man Cal Ripken, Jr. Over
these decades the Orioles won three World Series, and played in the
Fall Classic a total of six times.

Sadly, the last time the Orioles
played in and won a World Series was 1983. Since then the fortunes
of the team and the franchise began to gradually but steadily
decline until the debacle of 1988 when the O’s tied the Major League
record of 21 consecutive losses. In nearly the past three decades
the deterioration of this once
proud franchise was
marked by frequent ownership changes, from Jerold Hoffberger to
Edward Bennett Williams to Eli Jacobs and finally the current regime
of Peter Angelos beginning in 1993. Fittingly, the team was rescued
by Mr. Angelos, a long standing member of the Baltimore community,
at an auction. Angelos
bid of $173 million for this once
proud franchise was
greeted in Baltimore with cheers. The diminutive owner, standing
only 5’3”, was seen as a hero to a city that had endured the
repeated threats of Edward Bennett Williams to move the team to
Washington; the miserly nature of the nearly bankrupt Eli Jacobs;
and the long shadow of Mayflower trucks moving the venerable
Baltimore Colts by the unstable Robert Irsay in the darkness of a
late March night in 1984. In spite of all this chaos that dominated
the Baltimore sports scene, the state of Maryland (under the threat
of a repeat of the Colts fiasco) was able to build in 1992 a new
palace known as Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

What Happened to the “Once-proud

In searching for answers to the
question, it is simple to say: Peter Angelos and his sons. Except
for a few playoff years in the mid-to-late 1990’s the O’s have
subsequently lost 13 consecutive years. The only team to do worse is
the Pittsburgh Pirates with 17 losing seasons in a row. It is true
that Mr. Angelos has been the one constant since 1998 when the
streak (not to be confused with Cal Ripkens
immortal consecutive-games streak) began. Angelos has had numerous
managers and general managers, and the players once closely
identified with the community were no more than numbers. Certainly
the chaotic movement of key personnel, and the manifold insecurities
of the owner were factors in the franchise’s decline. Everything
Angelos tried seemed to lead to one abysmal failure after another.
The owner summarily fired a Hall of Fame announcer in Jon Miller and
another Cooperstown honoree, Pat Gillick, during these tumultuous
years. Hopefully, Angelos may have found the right mix to restore
Oriole Magic
with the hiring of Andy MacPhail and Buck Showalter in August 2010.
Things are indeed looking better, but questions remain what happened
to this storied franchise that gave us such marvelous players and
six AL pennants in less than three decades.

Certainly Mr. Angelos cannot
escape from the failings and incompetence of this team exhibited
both on and off the field. But this is only the most obvious of
reasons. Also profound is the near-complete failure of the team to
draft any impact positional players. The Oriole scouting department
since the advent of the amateur draft in 1965 has produced only a
handful of top-flight hitters beginning with Bobby Grich, Don Baylor
and Eddie Murray in the early and mid-1970’s. Following this period
the 1981 draft led to the selection of Cal Ripken, Jr., and then
this was followed by the so-called dark ages until the choice of
Brian Roberts in the late 1990’s, and Nick Markakis in this current
century. The draft is celebrating its 46th season, and
the Baltimore Orioles have selected the grand total of six truly
solid even stellar hitters. From my perspective, this is more than
just bad luck or negative karma.

As for pitchers, the Os
have been better, but even in this domain they have not selected a
true ace until Mike Flanagan in the 1970’s and Mike Mussina in the
1990’s. The Os have had

their share of effective starting pitchers, but most predate the
1965 season. Palmer was in the early 1960’s before the draft. What a
sorry, sad and even tragic tale. The Os
have had more than their share of phenoms and prospects, but it
seemed that all of them suffered debilitating injuries either
cutting short their careers or aborting them before they even

When you look at the
aforementioned realities, it doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to
realize that drafting and player development in the Oriole farm
system has been a failure. In recent years because of the team’s
lack of ability to draft and develop players the team has generally
been confined to the basement of the AL East. Losing begets losing,
and pretty soon the once
proud franchise was
looked upon with disdain. No stability, no coherence, and no plan
equals losing. But there are other factors contributing to this
mess. The Orioles have never been proactive. They wait and they
react to developments. Let me give one salient fact: the Orioles
were, to be generous, slow in recognizing the importance of the
international player market. While their competitors, particularly
in their own division, picked up on the importance of this market by
developing a scouting network in the Caribbean and ultimately in the
far east, the Orioles seemed oblivious to this treasure trove of
talent whether in the Dominican, Venezuela, Japan, or China. Even to
this day, their competitors on searching this prime areas for
players while the Orioles are only now awakening to this

The comparative weakness of the
Orioles in the vital areas of scouting and player development was
enhanced by their unwillingness to hire personnel to man these
departments. Recent statistics show that the Toronto Blue Jays, an AL
East competitor, have at least twice as many scouts in the United
States as the Orioles. The other teams in the East have considerably
more scouts then the Os,
and this doesn’t even count the international market. The Orioles
have only recently begun to recognize these hard facts, and have
started to hire a handful of scouts. Again, reactive and not
proactive, and the results have been painfully obvious not only at
the Major League level, but throughout the entire farm system.

The 2011 Draft will be held in
early June. How do the Orioles reverse their established pattern of
failure from top to bottom in their farm system? It seems, from the
perspective of an outsider, that the old baseball bromide voiced on
numerous occasions by Andy MacPhail is that you develop the arms and
buy the bats. Certainly in this offseason the Orioles have taken this
into account when they traded for Mark Reynolds and signed Vladimir
Guerrero, J. J. Hardy and Derek Lee. There were a few moves for
pitching, namely relievers and one gamble on a starting pitcher with
two hip surgeries.

Taking into account the above,
what I would do is to draft pitcher after pitcher followed by more
pitchers. Right-handed, left-handed, ambidextrous, you name it. For
the Os it makes sense for
Joe Jordan, the teams farm
director, to take college pitchers before high school pitchers unless
the latter is an up-and-coming Jim Palmer. College pitchers are
generally more polished, experienced and closer to the majors. In
this draft the Orioles will have an opportunity to select college
flame-throwers Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, both right-handers from
UCLA. Also available will be Taylor Jungmann from the University of
Texas and Daniel Huizen from the University of Virginia, a
right-hander and left-hander, respectively. Draft-eligible high
school hurlers include Dylan Bundy, whose brother Bobby is currently
pitching in the Oriole farm system. Daniel Norris, a high school
product from Tennessee, is a lefty with excellent stuff.

As for hitters, Anthony Rendon, third
baseman for Rice University, is considered the best everyday prospect
available for the draft. Other hitters including Bubba Starling and
George Springer will be available when the O’s draft at No. 4. The
O’s, as noted,have a long
history of failure in the draft, but in particular in choosing

Andy, follow your own guidelines:
draft pitchers and sign free-agent hitters. For a team such as the
Os, with their inherent
disadvantages in scouting and player development, go for the arms.
After all, look at the O’s current rotation: A potential ace in Zach
Britton, the team’s top prospect who had an excellent Major League
debut; Brian Matusz, on the DL for the next two weeks but considered
one of the more talented young southpaws in the AL; flame-throwing
Jake Arrieta, the team’s home opener starter; and Brad Bergesen. All
share one thing in common: they were drafted by the Orioles.

The great Oriole teams of the
1960’s and 70’s had considerable fire power, but it was their
pitching and defense that proved to be the cornerstone of their
success. Just look at the current starting pitchers at the <ajor
League level. Regardless, win or lose, the Orioles will always be
first in my heart – even if they remain last in the AL East.

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