Orioles need top GM to bat for Johnson

October 18, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles are on the right track if they're indeed about to hire Davey Johnson as manager, yet it still would be only half of the equation. For all the credit the club would deserve for correcting its mistake on Johnson, not even the game's winningest active manager can succeed without a strong general manager.

Johnson's major concern when he interviewed with the Orioles a year ago was working under a three-headed front office of Roland Hemond, Frank Robinson and Doug Melvin. If he's still willing to take this job after getting snubbed for Phil Regan, he must be confident the Orioles are going to hire a capable GM.

From every indication, that GM is not going to be Randy Smith, but if Johnson is the new manager, the club's rationale will make sense. It was bad enough the Orioles paired a rookie manager with a rookie pitching coach last season. Pairing a National League manager with a National League GM might be worse.

All signs point to a GM with an AL background, and the New York Yankees' Gene Michael just may be the Orioles' man. There's only one problem. Michael, 57, reportedly is about to become a special assistant to owner George Steinbrenner. He might not want to work 15-hour days anymore.

If Michael isn't interested -- or if owner Peter Angelos can't meet his price -- the Orioles would be left scrambling to find a replacement for Hemond. It's a horrifying thought, considering that the GM sets the tone for the entire organization, and is even more important than the manager.

The timing of all this illustrates the dangers of hiring a manager before a GM, but the Orioles put themselves in this corner, and at least with Johnson they would be halfway out. It would be absolutely inexcusable if they got shut out in an off-season when Johnson, Buck Showalter and Tony La Russa went on the open market.

La Russa apparently wants too much money and power, but why not wait for Showalter? It's a good question, seeing as how his firm hand and AL East background make him the best fit. The problem is, the Orioles don't know if Showalter will be available. He could end up with Smith in Detroit. Or he could return to the Yankees, given the unpredictability of Steinbrenner.

The belief in New York is that Steinbrenner wants to re-create the 1986 Mets -- that would explain his signings of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, and his expected pursuit of Johnson. This way, the Orioles can beat him to the punch, and perhaps force him to retain a manager he'd rather fire.

Granted, it's always possible Steinbrenner may jump into this at the last minute, but who's to say Johnson wants to return to New York? His wild ride with the Mets contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and led him to drink too much. Just last year, he said managing in New York "can kill you."

Of course, Johnson was singing Steinbrenner's praises last week at the National League Championship Series, but he was facing unemployment, and hedging his bets. At times, it almost sounded like he was campaigning for Showalter's job. But even then, he left the impression that his first choice still was Baltimore, where he played from 1965 to '72.

So, what would the Orioles be getting? Only the man with the highest winning percentage (.576) among active managers. Johnson, 52, has his critics, those who consider him too brash and claim he runs too loose a clubhouse. The fact is, Johnson wins.

He won in New York, averaging 96 victories in six full seasons with the Mets. And he won in Cincinnati, finishing first in the NL Central the past two seasons. Marge Schott didn't bother him. His lame-duck status didn't bother him. Nothing, it seems, bothers him, and that would be a big advantage in Baltimore.

Johnson has a knack for getting the most out of his players, and it's difficult to imagine the Orioles would have been as disappointing under him last season as they were under Regan. Indeed, one American League GM said last week he even prefers Johnson to La Russa and Showalter in one sense: Johnson, like Lou Piniella, has learned to get his hands dirty, and act as a teacher.

Why the Orioles' four-man search committee snubbed him for Regan a year ago defies explanation, but if Angelos fixes the mistake, what more could you ask? Well, there is one small thing. The hiring of Johnson would mean nothing unless Angelos took the next step, and backed him with a strong GM.

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