Miller needs to keep change to a minimum

March 23, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If Ray Miller is looking for a manager to emulate, he should forget Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland or even Earl Weaver.

It almost hurts to say this, but here goes:

Be like Cito!

That's right, Cito Gaston, the manager despised not only by Orioles fans, but also by many Blue Jays fans in Toronto.

Johnson, Leyland, Weaver -- Miller learned from the best. But say this for Gaston: He took over a talented team, and didn't screw it up.

In fact, Gaston won back-to-back world championships with the Blue Jays, doing it as only he could, without ever getting his lineup card dirty.

His players included three current Orioles -- Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and Jimmy Key. His general manager was the Orioles' current GM, Pat Gillick.

See the connection?

No one ever accused Gaston of being a master strategist, but he didn't need to be Connie Mack with Alomar, Carter and Co. tormenting opposing pitchers, and relievers Duane Ward and Tom Henke reducing games to seven innings.

Miller might possess a sharper baseball mind than Gaston. Orioles officials believe he is a harder worker and better communicator than Johnson. But he won't be a successful manager if he tries to show off, tries to do too much.

It's a legitimate concern.

This is Miller's second -- and probably last -- chance.

He was a flop in Minnesota more than a decade ago. Now he wants to prove that he knows how to manage, prove he was the right choice to replace Johnson.

Owner Peter Angelos gave him the keys to a Ferrari -- a $70 million model, albeit one with slightly worn tires. Miller can't wait to turn the ignition. The question is, how is he going to steer?

The answer won't be known until the games begin, but the issues that will define Miller's tenure as manager already seem clear: How will he divide playing time among so many veterans?

How will he set up his bullpen?

How will he stack his lineup?

None of this is so complicated. But consider a simple lineup question that Miller has pondered for several days. It demonstrates how tempting it will be for him to overmanage.

Ideally, Miller wants to bat B. J. Surhoff or Eric Davis second, and drop Alomar to third. He talked up the idea all week, then appeared to back off yesterday, saying that Alomar likely would be his No. 2 hitter in the season opener against Kansas City.

His basic rationale for the change is sound: Miller envisions the switch-hitting Alomar as an even bigger threat hitting third, using the whole field to drive in runs, instead of simply trying to shoot the ball through the first-base hole.

The problem is, the Orioles' lineup works better with Alomar batting second. He still figures to be weaker from the right side, so the Orioles need to protect him with a right-handed hitter. That way, they would prevent an opposing manager from neutralizing the middle of their order with a left-handed reliever.

But what would happen if you put a right-handed cleanup hitter behind Alomar?

Rafael Palmeiro would bat fifth.

Miller is leaving his options open, saying he still might "load up" and bat Alomar third against certain left-handers (Surhoff hits lefties better than righties, and Davis batted .382 against them last season). But he doesn't need to force the issue to make himself look smart.

That's what Johnson did.

And no, not everyone can get away with it.

Johnson fancied himself as baseball's answer to Bobby Fischer, tinkering constantly, using his players as pawns. Whether he put Bobby Bonilla at DH, Cal Ripken at third base or Jeff Reboulet in the lineup against Randy Johnson, he didn't care what his players thought of him, as long as he won.

He won last season with Alomar batting second, Davis third and Palmeiro fourth, his principal lineup until Davis underwent colon-cancer surgery. If Miller wants to change it, fine. But changing it for change's sake would be the worst thing he could do.

No question, Johnson was in love with his own ideas, even as a player, when he tried to tell Weaver how to manage. But the bottom line is, he won when he was supposed to win, not just with the Orioles, but also with the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds.

He didn't screw it up.

That, ultimately, is the highest compliment the manager of a talented club can receive, be it Johnson or Gaston, Sparky Anderson with the Big Red Machine, or Joe Torre with the 1996 New York Yankees.

The job is not without challenges, even under the best of conditions. The Orioles supposedly are loaded. Yet, the back end of their rotation could falter. Their middle-inning relief looks shaky. Their catchers will struggle to throw out opposing base stealers.

They've also got a glut of outfielders and DHs -- Carter, Davis and Surhoff, Brady Anderson, Harold Baines and Jeffrey Hammonds. Most are accustomed to playing every day. Hammonds, the youngest at 27, needs to play every day. And it's Miller's job to keep all of them happy.

The key -- and the one edge Miller might have over Johnson -- is communication. Miller plans to give everyone advance notice of the next day's lineup. Johnson did, too, but at times, he appeared to invite confrontations.

For all his faults, Gaston was an excellent communicator -- he had the respect of his players, and got more out of Alomar than any other manager. He wasn't Johnson. He wasn't Leyland. And he sure wasn't Weaver. But there was something to be said for his understated style. He let his players play. He didn't pretend to be a genius.

Be like Cito, Ray.

Don't screw it up.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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