Johnson gets silent message from Angelos

On Baseball

October 19, 1997|By Joe Strauss and Peter Schmuck | Joe Strauss and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Given a chance last week to confirm his earlier assertion that Davey Johnson would be back as manager in 1998, Orioles owner Peter Angelos wouldn't say. Given the opportunity to say he had reversed course and was plotting Johnson's ouster, Angelos did not say. Instead, organization sources believe Angelos will permit Johnson and his coaching staff to twist in the wind as punishment for what the owner perceived as a poor tactical performance against the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.

Christened the "head puppeteer" by assistant general manager Kevin Malone for his deft work during the Orioles' four-game Division Series takeout of the Seattle Mariners, Johnson provided Angelos ammunition with a smug performance against the Indians. No clearer illustration could have been given of his team's inability -- or reluctance -- to break from its 1996 reliance on power.

During a crushing Game 3 defeat, the Orioles hit into four double plays in the first five innings. The first stemmed from an abortive hit-and-run with Harold Baines on base. The others came with the Orioles unwilling to sacrifice or put a play in motion. Network analyst Tim McCarver ripped Johnson, accusing him of managing based on how he preferred to play.

Game 6 only reopened the scab. The Orioles were 0-for-12 -- including one ball out of the infield -- with runners in scoring position during an 11-inning, 1-0 loss. Even Johnson's tardy attempt at little ball backfired when Roberto Alomar bunted into a fielder's choice during the seventh inning.

The series exposed the Orioles as experienced but fundamentally flawed on offense. Some prefer to see that as Johnson's fault. Others may view it as a team living down to a selfish stereotype.

Rafael Palmeiro, 1-for-10 during the ALCS with runners in scoring position, painted the picture for the series in Wednesday's eighth inning. Hit by a pitch, Palmeiro was lifted by Johnson for pinch runner Jeffrey Hammonds, who subsequently stole second base. Rather than yield to Hammonds, Palmeiro first glared into the dugout, pointing at himself and mouthing, "Me? Me?"

Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Palmeiro, Mike Mussina and Jesse Orosco all spoke in Johnson's favor during the season's dying days. The outpouring could be construed two ways:

Johnson mended fences with many of the same veteran players he feuded with during a combustible 1996 season (exception: Alomar), or

Johnson ceded control of his clubhouse to a veteran faction headed by Ripken and Anderson.

Angelos, sources say, is of the latter opinion, an opinion reinforced when Johnson refused to ask the middle of his lineup to practice small-ball tactics during four excruciating one-run losses in the ALCS.

However, those same sources believe Johnson, whose brashness makes him unpopular with several organization factions, will return for the final year of a three-year, $2.25 million contract. General manager Pat Gillick said as much last week. And, indeed, he should be back. There are few, if any, better at his craft. And perhaps more profoundly, another managerial shift would only impede an organization trying to establish a semblance of continuity.

Realignment in review

When the smoke clears, the biggest beneficiary of the new realignment plan might be the Detroit Tigers, who will turn the AL Central into the game's tightest geographical division, and may derive a competitive benefit.

The Tigers are in the midst of an organizational renaissance, which was reflected by a dramatic improvement in their won-loss record from 1996 to '97. They expect to make more progress next season, but did not figure to overtake the Orioles or the free-spending New York Yankees in the AL East.

The AL Central includes only one team -- AL champion Cleveland -- that is considered a large-market club. The Chicago White Sox are in a large market, but just scaled down their payroll, and the Minnesota Twins and Brewers are in the bottom third of the game's revenue producers.

That creates the possibility that the Tigers will be a legitimate contender two years ahead of general manager Randy Smith's original schedule. The Indians figure to be the class of the division again, but they didn't exactly assert themselves during the regular season this year.

Conversely, the arrival of the expansion Devil Rays probably will further entrench the status quo in the American League East, where the Orioles figure to push their payroll past $60 million and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has never been afraid to spend what it takes to compete. It was a two-team race last year and could be again if the Blue Jays don't step up with some serious money this winter to punch up their offensive attack and solidify their pitching staff.

Braves new world

Don't believe all the tales of gloom and doom. Atlanta will be back at the top of the NL East standings next season, but the offensive lineup probably will have a different look and the bullpen likely will be upgraded.

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