In fog of misunderstandings, first step is to clear the air

November 01, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

They're talking.

That's the first step when trying to salvage a relationship. And it's an especially important step when trying to salvage one with Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

You've got to get his attention.

You've got to show proper deference.

You've got to prove that maybe you're not such a bad guy after all.

By those standards, manager Davey Johnson has an awful lot of catching up to do, but his 90-minute conversation with Angelos on Thursday was a start.

The next step for Johnson and Angelos is to sit down, hash out their differences and resolve to try one more time in 1998, even if they agree to disagree on the issues dividing them.

It would be best for both of them.

It also would be best for the team.

Maybe Angelos is finally starting to realize the value of keeping the Sporting News' American League Manager of the Year.

Maybe Johnson is finally starting to realize that tangling with Angelos is a lot more difficult than matching wits with Joe Torre.

Then again, maybe it all means nothing.

You never know with these two, who are starting to bear more than a passing resemblance to George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

The acrimony of the past week suggests that their differences might be irreconcilable. But the simple fact is, they need each other, perhaps more than ever before.

Johnson should know that he isn't going to escape the final year of his contract without a fight, and that after his unseemly spat with Angelos, he might not get another job so quickly.

Angelos, meanwhile, should know that he is unlikely to replace Johnson with a Jim Leyland or Felipe Alou, and that one of the Orioles' coaches, Ray Miller or Rick Down, isn't the answer.

He doesn't need another Phil Regan.

He doesn't need a public-relations hit.

He doesn't need ESPN showing unflattering graphics comparing his managerial hiring record to Steinbrenner's.

What he needs is better communication with Johnson.

That, of course, is the responsibility of both parties, and frankly the burden is more on Johnson, the employee, than it is on Angelos, the employer.

The owner wants to be informed. The owner wants to be consulted.

And the owner probably wants some things changed in 1998, starting with the way Johnson runs his clubhouse.

Johnson sparred with Bobby Bonilla, Cal Ripken and others in his first season, trying to gain control of a team weighed down by individual agendas.

Yet, he withdrew to such an extent this season, Ripken and Brady Anderson endorsed his return as manager, in part because they again were allowed free rein.

Which way does Angelos prefer?

Johnson probably doesn't know.

On one hand, Angelos rose to Roberto Alomar's defense when Johnson fined the second baseman $10,500 for missing an exhibition game and team banquet without permission.

On the other hand, Angelos all but called for the end of Ripken's consecutive-games streak in spring training, saying "The goals are met. It serves no purpose."

If Angelos wants Johnson to sit Ripken, he should tell him, and tell him very clearly. And he should back him to the fullest when the inevitable firestorm erupts, because it is Johnson who will take the criticism.

Johnson, meanwhile, needs to start playing the game, start schmoozing Angelos, start going to lunch with him once or twice a month, if that's what it takes to satisfy the owner.

They could trade complaints about players.

They could praise each other's intelligence.

It might be fun.

Indeed, the Alomar fine might not have been as controversial if Johnson had displayed as much political acumen as Alomar, and explained his side to the owner.

Now Johnson has to talk his way out of a far bigger mess.

It will be difficult, but not impossible.

Ripken and Mike Mussina signed their contract extensions after meeting with Angelos. The Anderson negotiations have followed similar path, which is why the center fielder still figures to remain an Oriole.

Angelos is emotional, not irrational. He forms strong opinions, but isn't close-minded. Mussina was a classic example. The pitcher he met was far different from the one he heard about, and it changed everything.

"Peter is very intelligent," Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone said. "He can read situations and read people -- that's part of his forte in the courtroom, part of his success.

"When he has an opportunity to personally evaluate someone, it enables him to see through whatever the strife might be; to understand, to some degree, where the other person is coming from."

The problem is getting Angelos to hear the other side. As the owner, he's not required to listen. Indeed, Johnson said he only made his request for an extension or buyout after Angelos wouldn't take his call.

That was a week ago Wednesday, and Johnson interpreted it as a disturbing message.

Eight days later, the two finally talked -- again after a call by Johnson.

If the manager is smart, he'll fly to Baltimore for a face-to-face meeting. He'll apologize for his handling of the Alomar fine. He'll back off his request for an extension. He'll tell Angelos what an honor it is to work for him.

Maybe all that will come out of this is an amicable separation, which would be quite an achievement in itself after a week of mud-slinging that stained the entire organization.

Or maybe, just maybe, cooler heads will prevail.

Ugly as the past week has been, each of the adversaries can take a major step forward, if he just swallows his pride. Angelos can prove he doesn't fire every manager. Johnson can prove he doesn't always get fired.

Go for it, fellas.

Peace in our time.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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