O's gamble is Miller's lucky roll

November 12, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

What an opportunity for Ray Miller.

And what a gamble by the Orioles.

Those were the main themes lingering in the air yesterday as Miller was installed as Davey Johnson's replacement.

For Miller, it's the baseball version of hitting the lottery.

He's 52, which isn't young. He has managed all of 239 major-league games, which isn't many. He hasn't managed anywhere in 11 years, which is a long time -- and now he has control of a team that won 98 games last season.

"I guess the odds on that were pretty long, huh?" Miller said yesterday.

You could say.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Teams coming off such successful seasons seldom change managers, period. It's hard to remember more than a few cases similar to this. Dick Howser left the Yankees after winning 103 games in 1980 (and losing in the American League Championship Series). Dick Williams left the A's after winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1972-73. There are a few other examples, but not many.

It's the losing teams, the average teams, that usually make a change. The guys who are always out there seeking a chance to manage assume they'll have to settle for a loser.

No one knew that better than Miller. The four or five feelers he had received since being fired in Minnesota in 1986 were from "middle-of-the-road clubs," he said yesterday.

A year ago, the headline on his career seemed set. He would be remembered as a terrific pitching coach who had one brief, unhappy shot as a manager. That headline seemed so set, in fact, that he came "within two weeks" of deciding to retire a year ago.

"I'd been doing this for 20 years," he said, "and I've got grandkids at home [in Ohio] now."

One year later, he has the keys to one of baseball's best teams in his hands.

In all of major-league history, only a handful of managers with as little experience have taken over such a club.

"I recognize this for what it is," Miller said, "a great opportunity."

Not that he's some greenhorn. He's a baseball lifer who has watched from the shadows for years. This chance is the payoff for years of hard labor.

He came across yesterday as straightforward, unassuming and knowledgeable, a low-key personality who would utilize many of Davey Johnson's winning habits without butting heads with owner Peter Angelos. Miller said he had agreed to Angelos' request to have lunch several times a month and "kick around" what is happening on the field.

"Just to let him know where I'm at," he said. "He assured me that he's not going to tell me who to play or anything like that."

It all sounded great until you stopped and remembered that the last thing the Orioles needed was a managerial change, that Miller represents the organization's attempt to minimize the damage caused by Angelos' ridiculous temper tantrum.

And of course, all new managers always sound great in November, before games have been lost, moves have been second-guessed and the pressure has started to build.

No one sounded better on the day he was hired than Phil Regan, and you know what happened there.

Miller is more steeped in the Oriole Way than Regan ever was, and he's less predisposed to fail, given the All-Star talent he is inheriting.

But it's a fact that the Orioles are gambling by handing over that talent to someone who hasn't managed since Jim Traber was a rookie sensation.

They have traded in a proven winner for a manager who still has to prove he can juggle high-priced egos, caress lefty-righty matchups and sit easily in a hot seat.

How big is the risk of giving such a team to such a manager?

"Anything in life is a risk," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said. "To get the rewards, you have to take risks. But I don't think the risk [in Miller's hiring] is as great as you might perceive."

Why?

"Because one of the keys to being a successful manager is communicating with the players," Malone said, "and Ray will do that. He did it with the pitching staff last year. It's his personality. I feel confident he will succeed because of that quality."

Anything else?

"He's got a great support staff. Mike Flanagan, Rick Down, Sam Perlozzo and Elrod [Hendricks], plus myself and Pat [Gillick]. Ray will make the decisions, but we'll all be there for him."

That sounds like an organization that probably won't have as much conflict next year, a happier, more unified organization with fewer agendas.

But organizational serenity isn't the goal, is it?

Winning is the goal.

And the Orioles won 98 times with Johnson last season.

Handing such a club over to Miller is a sensational opportunity for him, a turn of almost unbelievably good fortune.

A good break for a good guy.

But it's a gamble.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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