Frankly, McCraw's and Jackson's Oriole days appear numbered

Ken Rosenthal

June 25, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

For all their talk of stability, the Orioles are rather adept at identifying scapegoats. The "reassigning" of Frank Robinson was only the start. Pitching coach Al Jackson and hitting coach Tom McCraw now appear in serious trouble as well.

Jackson, 55, and McCraw, 50, are the most prominent holdovers from Robinson's staff, and from every indication they won't be invited back next season.

What's more, the two coaches seem to recognize this is probably their last year with the club. "I tell Mac every day, just go out, do your job, keep teaching," Jackson says. "We've got to keep each other going."

New manager John Oates insists he can't assemble his 1992 staff until he is rehired, but that is not expected to be a problem. According to one club official, he is working with "a high degree of comfort" -- not just for this season, but beyond.

The same can't be said of Jackson and McCraw.

One directs a pitching staff with a 4.86 ERA, the highest in the majors. The other oversees a group of hitters batting a combined .250 -- the fourth lowest in the AL even with Cal Ripken leading the league at .350.

As the man most responsible for the development of the club's young pitchers, Jackson is clearly on shakier ground. Yet the perception among some players and club officials is that both he and McCraw were "puppets" who deferred to Robinson and lost respect in the clubhouse.

Jackson and McCraw vehemently deny that charge, but they've been viewed as a package since arriving together as minor-league instructors from the New York Mets' organization. They are road roommates and close friends. It's unlikely one would be dismissed and not the other.

The rest of the coaches -- Cal Ripken Sr. (third base), Curt Motton (first) and Elrod Hendricks (bullpen) -- appear safe. Ripken, in fact, has emerged as Oates' closest adviser, asserting more influence than at any time since being replaced by Robinson as manager six games into the 1988 season.

Why not make the changes right away? Because managers hired midway through a season almost always keep their predecessors' coaches for the sake of (ahem) stability. Robinson carried Ripken's staff the rest of 1988. Hendricks was the only one asked back.

It is widely believed that a manager picks his own coaches, but the front office shares responsibility in the formation of a staff. Clubs often reward minor-league managers and coaches the same way they do players -- with promotions to The Show.

Thus, the leading candidate to replace Jackson is Rochester pitching coach Dick Bosman. There is no obvious choice within the system to replace McCraw, but Triple A manager Greg Biagini and Double A manager Jerry Narron figure to be candidates for the staff.

Bosman, 47, spent 1 1/2 years as the Chicago White Sox pitching coach, and his 1987 staff posted the league's third lowest ERA for a club eight games below .500. But he too is to blame when a Jose Mesa arrives with little idea how to pitch. He joined the Orioles as a minor-league instructor in 1988.

In the spring of '89 Bosman said of Gregg Olson, "I don't think his stuff right now is conducive to being a late-inning closer, but he has the potential to be a quality starting pitcher." Olson earned 27 saves that season and was named AL Rookie of the Year.

If the Orioles sour on Bosman, they could always turn to minor-league pitching coordinator Mike Pazik. Frankly, Oates' preference might be Dom Chiti, his pitching coach at Rochester in '88. Chiti was Cleveland's version of Pazik until the Indians made him their second bullpen coach June 14.

In any case, the new coaches will face the same problems as Jackson and McCraw. The average salary of a major-league coach is well below the players' $100,000 minimum. Yet the coach is held responsible for players who often ignore their advice.

The idea of Jose Canseco taking batting instruction from Rick Burleson in Oakland borders on ludicrous. Certain pitching coaches command widespread respect -- Oakland's Dave Duncan is one, Pittsburgh's Ray Miller another. But more often than not, a coach's true value is impossible to measure.

For that reason, Jackson and McCraw figure to be recycled, perhaps as minor-league instructors in San Diego, where they are favorites of general manager Joe McIlvaine and assistant GM John Barr. The four worked together with the Mets, and Barr also was Orioles scouting director for two years.

At face value, the Orioles' record serves as a clear indictment of the two coaches. But like Robinson, they were immune from criticism when the club nearly won the division in '89. At some point the players must be considered part of the problem. The front office, too.

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