A risk on the right side THE HIRING OF PHIL REGAN

October 17, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles have taken a risk by turning down Davey Johnson and making Phil Regan, a 57-year-old rookie, their new manager. But the risk is worth taking.

Regan is a wise, dignified baseball man who could well become a first-rate manager, particularly if Peter Angelos is smart enough to leave him alone.

Turning down Johnson is the risk, of course. Johnson is a proven commodity who has managed a World Series winner, and he would have come from Cincinnati if the Orioles had wanted him. They didn't because he is strong-willed and egocentric and asked a lot of questions in his interview. In other words, the Orioles were afraid of him.

They will regret their cowardice if Regan fails. But don't expect Regan to fail.

Just because you hadn't heard of him until three weeks ago doesn't mean that he isn't qualified for the job. He is a sound choice with much upside potential.

Regan comes highly recommended by everyone from general managers to bird dog scouts. He is low-key and selfless and hands-on, yet forceful in his beliefs. He preaches winning with pitching and defense and more pitching, which is pretty smart. He knows the skinny on just about every player in the majors and minors. You get the impression he has seen everything there is to see.

Don't be misled by the fact that no club has hired him until now. That's purely a result of his being out of professional baseball from 1973 to 1982, when he was the coach at Grand Valley State College in Michigan. He had to start over and go to school as a scout, a minor-league instructor, a major-league pitching coach and a winter ball manager.

"I probably wasn't ready to manage in the majors until three or four years ago," he said yesterday.

He is ready now. The Dodgers considered him when there was talk of Tommy Lasorda leaving. The Marlins wanted to hire him two years ago. The Rangers wanted to hire him now. That's why the Orioles timed the announcement so curiously, on a Sunday afternoon. Regan would have gone to Texas today, and Doug Melvin would have hired him.

If that had happened, the Orioles would have wound up with Johnson. He would have been fine, of course. But maybe, just maybe, Regan is a better match for Angelos.

Neither Johnson nor Angelos believes you can tell him anything he doesn't already know. You can see where their marriage might have blown up.

Regan's ego is as small as Johnson's is large. Regan and Angelos are of the same generation; they'll be able to relate. Regan knows every bit as much baseball as Davey Johnson, but he can impart it more personably, a function of his intrinsic humility.

Angelos just might respect the guy enough to butt out.

If not, well, the question was put straight to Regan yesterday: Can you work for an owner who has said he will suggest lineup moves when he feels it is necessary?

"I don't mind listening to an owner if he has an opinion," Regan said. "I have no problems with it. It's his privilege. If we're communicating well, everything will be fine."

Stay tuned. But listen to a story Regan told from one of the 10 seasons he managed in winter ball:

One year in the Dominican Republic, his team was in last place and the team's co-owners called him in for a meeting. He thought he might get fired, but the co-owners just wanted to talk about the lineup.

"Why don't you make out the lineup tonight?" Regan suggested.

One co-owner balked, but the other agreed to do it. Regan's team, using the co-owner's lineup, broke a losing streak that night.

"And it was fine with me," Regan said yesterday. "I don't have enough of an ego to care about who gets the credit. I just care about winning."

Managing in winter ball was also a useful precursor for handling the pressures of the job. The media and fans are intensely vocal and critical in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

"After one big game that we had lost at home before 30,000 fans, a club official came down and told me that they were going to have to escort me out of the park tonight because the crowd was a little upset and unruly," Regan said. "Two guards with machine guns led me out."

He smiled at the memory and offered its lesson: "Once you have managed down there, you're ready for anything."

But, as the manager of the hometown team in the city of the baseball monster, he will find himself in a crucible unlike any he has experienced. That is part of the risk the Orioles are taking. Regan seems like the type who will handle the heat, but you can never tell which ones are going to shatter.

A lot of people in baseball will be shocked if Regan shatters, though. The odds are long.

"I have been second-guessed plenty of times," he said. "That's part of the game."

Spoken like a rookie manager. But this is no ordinary rookie. And even if he was, so what? Nine of the 12 teams that finished in first and second place last season were led by managers in their first major-league jobs.

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