O's GM plant assembly line for discontent

Ken Rossenthal

June 05, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

So now Frank Robinson is the front-office version of Cal Ripken Sr. Hired and fired, shifted and reassigned. With all those shiny happy people working on 33rd Street, it's a wonder the Orioles don't lead the American League in company picnics.

Ripken returned as third base coach, by golly, and now Robinson is back as assistant general manager. Mind you, his contract stipulated as much. The only question was how long he'd deliberate before officially accepting his new position.

The final tally was 11 days, but who's counting? The Orioles cross their fingers and assume all wounds will heal. Well, Ripken never got over his firing after six games in 1988. Robinson is no less proud, and much less the company man.

Now he'll be working side by side with the people who dismissed him from one job and had no choice but to give him another. The Orioles sugar-coat everything short of natural disasters, but not even that minister of disinformation, club president Larry Lucchino, can twist this around.

The front office now includes one aging general manager (Roland Hemond), two aspiring general managers (Robinson and Doug Melvin) and one wanna-be general manager (Lucchino). The only missing element is a former general manager. Where have you gone, Hank Peters?

Actually, the overcrowding in the executive suites is a minor concern next to the potentially explosive situation regarding Robinson. The Orioles promised him a wide range of front-office duties, but they're obligated to him for only one year. Robinson, 55, won't last long if he considers it a waste.

Even yesterday, he measured his words carefully, adopting a wait-and-see approach. He likes what he hears -- "It's no big transition," Hemond said. "We've always involved Frank deeply in many of our baseball decisions" -- but he knows actions speak louder than words.

"I'm happy now," Robinson said from his home in Bel Air, Calif. "It depends on how it goes. If I can grow in the position, then it's fine. It will depend on what they allow me to do, what comes my way. Right now it looks like it's going to be a very workable position."

Robinson, of course, still wants to become general manager, but it's no secret that Melvin, the club's other assistant GM, has the same goal. Hemond, 61, is in the final year of his contract. The club could "reassign" him to a cushy executive position without much argument.

Hemond acknowledged, "I love what I'm doing, but I don't know the future." His removal would give the fans their front-office scapegoat, but it would not resolve the larger issues. The Orioles still would be operating by committee. And they'd still have to choose between Melvin and Robinson.

The problem with the group approach is accountability. The game is complex enough now to justify all the cooks in the kitchen, and the club executives, for all their conflicting goals, work together well. Just don't ask who makes the decisions. Hemond took responsibility for firing Ripken and Robinson. In reality he probably wasn't the catalyst for either move.

Late owner Edward Bennett Williams almost certainly ordered Ripken's dismissal, and it's a safe bet Lucchino had a hand in Robinson's. Lucchino also negotiates major contracts and assists in major trades. Such participation is inevitable, but who's to blame when something goes wrong?

To Lucchino's delight, no one knows. Hemond solicits input from Robinson, Melvin and an army of veteran scouts. That doesn't leave him paralyzed -- witness the Glenn Davis trade -- but now the equation changes. Robinson has an agenda. Melvin has an agenda. Something has to give.

For now, Robinson doesn't foresee a problem, not with Melvin running the minor-league department, his area of least interest. On the other hand, the future can't be ignored. Melvin, 38, is one of the game's rising young executives. Will the Orioles risk losing him to accommodate Robinson?

That's the critical question, assuming the happy family remains intact. Lucchino said, "Frank has handled this with grace and dignity," but now comes the test. Robinson starts Monday. It will be just grand, facing his accusers every day.

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