Three years ago, Al Jackson and Tom McCraw quit their jobs in the New York Mets' farm system to join Frank Robinson's staff in Baltimore. But when the Orioles fired Jackson as their pitching coach yesterday, the only thing McCraw could tell his close friend was goodbye.
McCraw, 50, said he was "surprised" to be retained as manager John Oates' hitting instructor, for he too was closely identified with Robinson. But he immediately accepted the Orioles' offer to return, even as his buddy "Jack" met the opposite fate.
"Jack is like my brother. I'd give up my life for Jack," McCraw said. "But we're professionals about what we do. We're fortunate that when people get fired in this business, it's not a black mark against your ability to teach. You work hard, someone will notice."
Jackson, 55, worked hard, but he couldn't prevent the Orioles from finishing last in the majors with a 4.59 earned run average. Speaking from his home in Dix Hills, N.Y., he claimed "no hard feelings at all." He knew he was in trouble the moment Oates replaced Robinson as manager on May 23.
Robinson then became an assistant general manager, but Jackson said, "As soon as Frank was let go, all the feelings were out there. Frank and I discussed it. He thought it would happen. He didn't know for sure, but he thought I'd be let go. That's the way the game goes. It's no secret."
As it turned out, the Orioles fired only one other member of Robinson's Opening Day staff, first base coach Curt Motton. They plan to hire three new coaches, but retained bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks and third base coach Cal Ripken Sr. along with McCraw.
Oates personally informed Jackson and Motton of their dismissals after the season finale at Memorial Stadium on Sunday night. Robinson was criticized for not being present when general manager Roland Hemond fired four coaches in October 1988.
"I've been let go a couple of times as a coach and neither time the manager was available to do it," Oates said. "Now I know why. When that door closed, I just wanted to crawl under my desk somewhere."
The club said it would offer Motton another position in the organization, but did not extend the same proposal to Jackson, expressing confidence he'd land another job. "I'm sure you'll hear very shortly he'll be joining another club," Hemond said.
For his part, Jackson did not seem concerned. "I'll get a job. That's no big deal," he said. "And if I don't, I'll go to the beach."
He was only kidding, of course. Jackson could return to the Mets, where he served as a minor-league manager and coach for 16 years. Or he could wind up in San Diego, where he remains popular with former Mets executives Joe McIlvaine and John Barr.
Barr, of course, was also the Orioles' scouting director from 1988-90, but Jackson seemed more confident of rejoining the Mets. "That's always a possibility," he said. "I can always go back there."
The Mets' coaching staff is in limbo following the firing of manager Bud Harrelson. It might not matter to Jackson, who most likely would return to the minors. He now has been fired twice at the major-league level. Boston dismissed him after three seasons in 1979.
Oates refused to blame Jackson directly for the Orioles' pitching woes, explaining, "Whether it was the pitching coach's fault, whether it was a lack of talent, whether it was injuries, I just thought it was time to make a change in that area."
In the simple analysis, McCraw's young hitters developed, and Jackson's young pitchers did not. Indeed, the Orioles could not justify firing McCraw after finishing third in the majors with 170 homers, after watching the progress of hitters like Leo Gomez, Chito Martinez and Sam Horn.
"He has those guys working," Oates said. Of course, Jackson had his pitchers working too, but without the same results. Things were quite different in 1989, when he taught Jeff Ballard his sinking fastball and the Orioles nearly won the division. But as Jackson said, that's the way the game goes.
Ballard never regained his form after elbow surgery, Pete Harnisch flourished after getting traded to Houston, Ben McDonald struggled through one injury after another. Yet for all that, Jackson traced his decline to the inconsistency of another young pitcher: Jose Mesa.
"I feel like I lost Mesa," Jackson said. "Losing Mesa could have been the whole thing. That's the only thing I have regrets about. I lost him. I couldn't get him straightened out."
Mesa led the Orioles in victories, innings and strikeouts through May 11, when he was 4-3 with a 2.83 ERA. He then went nine starts without a victory, and wound up spending six weeks at Triple A. Overall, he won only two of his final 16 starts with a 7.63 ERA.
McDonald (6-8, 4.84) was another mystery, but Jackson is confident he will succeed. "He's learning how to pitch," Jackson said. "I would like to see him start 30-35 games. That hasn't happened yet."
Eventually, of course, it should.
But Jackson won't be around to see it.