Manager grounded in country Miller: The Orioles' new manager brings a quiet confidence to the high-pressure job, an outlook formed by off-seasons spent in rural Ohio as well as by his baseball experience.

January 25, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW ATHENS, Ohio -- From seven miles away, directions to Ray and Judy Miller's place are simple enough.

A low voice on the other end of the line says matter-of-factly: "Stay right where you are, and I'll come get you. Otherwise, you'll never find the place."

And this is just how the Orioles' manager of two months prefers it. Tucked away within the rolling hills of eastern Ohio, Miller and his family live in a county with three traffic lights (two of them blinking reds), a phone company still configured for rotary dialing and a history steeped in coal mining. Here, while he plots for a season that carries monstrous expectations, Miller can find anyone, but not just anyone can find him.

When the rescue party arrives, Miller is in jeans, boots, flannel shirt and a red pickup bearing the license plate "MONDO." He might be able to pass for the Marlboro man if he weren't trying to shuck the habit.

Instead of the shortcut home, Miller offers the "scenic tour" through rolling farmland and soft-shouldered county roads. There are impressive ranch homes and others where indoor plumbing appears iffy. Strip mining has scarred the land in some places but in others left divots for ponds to sprout, perfect for fishing.

"You can make your own fun here. In a lot of ways, it's a better place to raise kids. Everything isn't about instant gratification," Miller says.

Little in Miller's life has been about the quick way. A 10-year minor-league playing career never earned him a major-league appearance. Nearly 12 years have passed since he put together a 109-130 record as manager of the Minnesota Twins, an opportunity he occasionally concedes was handled poorly.

Twenty-eight years after the couple settled here and 32 years after they married, you couldn't budge Ray and Judy with a wrench and a crowbar. Judy's family settled here in the 1920s. Her parents still live several miles away. Raised on Prince George's County farmland before it was swallowed whole by Washington's sprawl, Miller has never felt at ease within an urban crush. This place is a better fit.

"It's a strange feeling," Miller says. "When there's no baseball, it's time to go home to Ohio. When it's time for baseball, it's like going home to Baltimore.

"I don't mind working in the city, especially Baltimore. But when I'm home, I don't like to be around a lot of people."

Clark Gable was born in nearby Cadiz, the county seat. A flannel and denim crossroads, New Athens boasts its own stop sign and few secrets. Miller can see his son's and daughter-in-law's home from his back porch. Outside Miller's kitchen window across the street, a neighbor festooned his yard for the holidays with a pair of lighted 3-foot plastic candles on either side of a Christmas tree formed by 104 cans, give or take a six-pack. Nothing real fancy. Everything real.

"You learn not to talk about folks around here. There's a good chance the person you're talking to is related to the person you're talking about," Miller says.

Middle of nowhere

This little slice of rolling heaven carries a misnomer. There is little new in this place that swelled then shriveled along with the coal mining industry. Nor is it a suburb of Athens, the better-known party town that embraces Ohio University some 130 miles to the southwest. To differentiate itself, the town pronounces its name "New Ay-thens" -- population: 400 "if you're counting the living and the dead," cracks Miller.

Wheeling, W.Va., is 17 miles east. The nearest store requires a seven-mile hike on winding, two-lane roads. When Miller says his nearest neighbor to the north is six miles distant, it sounds like a boast.

Why not? At 52, Miller is where he wants to be.

The Takoma Park native is two years into his second stay with the organization that transformed him from minor-league relief pitcher to player-coach to minor-league pitching instructor to major-league pitching coach.

In New Athens, Miller constructed his ranch home in two stages, much of it with his own hands. He performed much of the carpentry himself except for solid oak kitchen cabinets. Downstairs sits his office, including photographs and drawings. Featured prominently are the three Cy Young Award winners and seven 20-game winners he has coached for two organizations. One, Mike Flanagan, will be his pitching coach this season. Another, Doug Drabek, will be his fifth starter.

Miller's home is hardly a glistening shrine to his career. Except for the small office, there is no evidence that the game's most successful pitching coach lives here. Celebrity and self-indulgence are family traits of neither Judy nor Ray.

Judy's father is retired from the local coal company. Ray's mother, who lives in Frederick County with one of his two sisters, worked for the Prince George's County police department as a dispatcher. His carpenter father left behind influence that persists more than 20 years since his passing.

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