Angelos may make season's biggest error

October 24, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

Davey Johnson is a good manager, a winning manager, a more qualified and accomplished manager than any replacement Peter Angelos could find.

Alas, Angelos seems to be the only person who doesn't understand that.

That's the only reason it's not a slam-dunk certainty that Johnson will return as Orioles manager in 1998 after being voted American League Manager of the Year by his peers.

Angelos doesn't get it, pure and simple.

There are a few bad major-league managers, a lot of average ones and a few good ones, and Johnson is one of the good ones.

If Angelos understood that, he would be talking to Johnson about a contract extension instead of inventing a rift that could lead to Johnson's dismissal and the hiring of, say, Rick Dempsey, Jerry Narron or someone else who would get swallowed whole, like Phil Regan.

Either way, Johnson almost certainly is gone after his contract runs out next year; with the highest winning percentage (.575) among active managers and a record of having never finished worse than second on a season-long job, he can find another job with less hassle.

But the Orioles are taking one more run in 1998 with their core of high-priced veterans, and Johnson is the right guy to manage them. He knows how to handle pitchers and big egos and how to spark a team into playing 162 games. Some of his moves don't work out, but he seldom makes a mistake.

The Orioles are a big-time team right now, and Johnson is a

big-time manager. Losing him might even cause Randy Myers and other free agents to question the team's commitment to winning now.

Yet there was GM Pat Gillick saying on a Toronto radio talk show that Johnson's return was a break-even proposition, illuminating Angelos' strong and inexplicable dissatisfaction with Johnson, which existed long before the Orioles' surprising loss to the Indians in the American League Championship Series.

Johnson should have total job security after what he has accomplished in two seasons in Baltimore.

The Orioles went a dozen years without making the playoffs before he arrived, and look what has happened.

Last year, they made the playoffs as a wild-card qualifier and upset the favored Indians before losing to the Yankees in the ALCS.

This year, they won 98 games and went wire-to-wire for the club's first division title in 14 years, then knocked out the Mariners in a Division Series before losing to the Indians.

Johnson has helped restore the franchise's winning tradition, helping Angelos make good on a promise made when the club was purchased five years (and two fired managers) ago.

But Angelos is displeased with him for not getting the team to the World Series this year.

It's a classic case of what can happen when an owner interferes in on-field operations, of which he knows little.

If Angelos doesn't want to be known as Baltimore's Steinbrenner, he should let this drop.

The Orioles have won six pennants and three World Series titles in 43 years, which means it doesn't happen very often, regardless of how many superstars you buy.

Firing a manager for failing to win the World Series is not unlike firing him for failing to buy a winning lottery ticket.

It's unrealistic.

Earl Weaver managed 16-plus years, made the Hall of Fame -- and went 1-3 in the World Series.

If Angelos knew baseball, he would know better than to measure Johnson against such high standards.

He would know that baseball is the most capricious of sports, that you can have the best team and still lose if everything doesn't go right on the wrong day.

Admittedly, Johnson courts trouble with his headstrong style ("I don't care what anyone thinks") and methods (his fining of Roberto Alomar for missing a July exhibition enraged Angelos).

And you can relate to Angelos' disappointment in that his money helped the Orioles field the AL's best team this season.

But baseball history is replete with championship-caliber teams that didn't win championships.

The Atlanta Braves have won just one World Series title despite dominating the National League in the '90s.

That doesn't mean Bobby Cox's job is constantly up for review.

If you have a top manager, as the Braves do, you just consider yourself lucky and leave him alone, as the Braves do.

Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland and other top managers aren't second-guessed and subjected to headlines about their job security -- and they have accomplished less than Johnson.

A good manager is a good manager, regardless of what happens in the playoffs in any given year.

Johnson's players understand; even Cal Ripken, with whom he has squabbled, defended him publicly late in the season.

Johnson's peers certainly understand, as his Manager of the Year award demonstrates.

Johnson can be a difficult personality, and he didn't have a great tactical ALCS, but you know it isn't his fault when even the knee-jerk talk-show callers aren't screaming for his scalp.

He didn't hang a slider to Marquis Grissom in Game 2 or let the winning run score on a blown squeeze in Game 3 or let two runs score on a wild pitch in Game 4 or strand a million runners in Game 6.

No matter.

Angelos isn't happy, and we know what that means.

It means his manager is in trouble.

But hey, his managers are always in trouble, aren't they?

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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