Williams fanned flames that burned down once-proud Orioles

John Steadman

May 29, 1991|By John Steadman

Most of the problems that have beset the Baltimore Orioles, once the epitome of stability, can be traced to the ownership regime of the late Edward Bennett Williams, who allowed his fervor as a fan to determine on-the-field decisions. It's at times like this, with the club showing the worst record in the major leagues, that the genesis of decline comes into focus.

A once-prideful franchise began to come apart at the seams, much the way one of those old "nickel rockets" unraveled after it skipped off a skinned infield. It was Williams who fired Joe Altobelli as manager less than two years after he directed the club to a World Series. Altobelli was replaced by a recycled Earl Weaver, who found out the hard way that the lack of talent wouldn't allow him to think runs across home plate.

Meanwhile, Williams referred to Altobelli as a "cement head" and let him dangle from the rope before cutting him down and naming Weaver. The treatment of Altobelli represents one of the lowest points in the history of the franchise. And even Frank Robinson, the latest Orioles manager to be terminated, said he thought Altobelli deserved more time. Robinson, too.

After Weaver retired the second time to own race horses and play golf the year-around, Cal Ripken Sr. became the manager, a reward for serving the organization in the minor leagues for 13 years. Williams said Ripken showed "self-discipline" when the Orioles went on a long, tiring trip to Japan in 1984 by never removing his necktie in the cabin of the plane.

Robinson became a coach for the Orioles, while Altobelli, Weaver and Ripken were in charge, and then moved to the front office. He came back to managing after Ripken was released six games into the 1988 season. Some of Ripken's friends said Robinson "second guessed" him, even though it could have been an expression of an analytical opinion.

Now Robinson has been offered the opportunity, after being "fired" as manager, of a reassignment to the front office, which

is where he was three years ago, working with general manager Roland Hemond. Before Hemond arrived, a man considered by his contemporaries to be one of the game's most competent general managers, Hank Peters, was fired. He was quickly signed by the Cleveland Indians to fill the same job he was doing here.

Robinson then moved back to the dugout as manager and now, with another turn of the wheel, has been offered a front-office post. But strike up the band. The game of musical chairs goes on again. Robinson has come full circle. The Orioles' president, Larry Lucchino, said Robinson was being offered a chance to return to the front office and assured the media it wasn't being done for "nostalgia's sake."

But the Orioles fully realize by terminating Frank as manager and turning him into a martyr, at least in the public perception, they had better do all they can to cover their public relations tracks. His retention would serve to accomplish just that, even though Lucchino and Hemond never said that was an objective. But they weren't going to mistreat an old hero.

It was disturbing to hear Robinson say "time" had changed his agreement, referring to the deal he thought he had when he left the executive offices to take over in the dugout. He said, furthermore, "he would not hold people to the language of the contract and they wouldn't hold me." Again, he said "time" had altered the arrangement but didn't explain why.

And from another aspect, there was ambiguity. Robinson insisted "the talent [he had] would be successful at this level." But he's the ex-manager not because of what he didn't do but what the team failed to fulfill under his direction. The performance was dismal.

Robinson refused to cop out on the injury to Glenn Davis. "He made our entire lineup better, not just Cal Ripken Jr. You can't dump all the responsibility on his shoulders. When we lost him it was a big void," said Robinson.

Philosophically, he said what managers have known for a century. "If you stay around long enough you're going to be fired," which even happened to a man named Casey Stengel after he won 10 pennants in 12 years with the New York Yankees. The Orioles have gotten into their present predicament because of an ongoing series of moves that took them away from how they used to do things.

Those errors compounded themselves. The record book, and a look back, provides insight into the disturbing decline of what used to be baseball's most successful operation.

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