On hot seat, Miller coolly confident Given $70 million team, O's manager changes position, not manner

'I see him as same person'

Easy rapport helps unify a team, break down past 'barriers'

March 31, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

He is the Orioles' new manager, but his players still perceive him to be the same man. Now, if Ray Miller can only enjoy the same success.

No longer will Miller be introduced as the game's most respected pitching coach. When he steps from the first base dugout this afternoon before a capacity crowd at Camden Yards, he assumes responsibility for a season of massive expectation.

"Yeah, I'm going to be nervous," Miller says. "It's Opening Day. Everybody's nervous Opening Day. You don't want to make a bad decision. You don't want to say the wrong thing to your team. It's kind of a tense time. There's so much going on. You go out on the field, and some guy you haven't seen for 42 years is pushing his way through the crowd.

"Eventually during the season, you get into a rhythm and everything falls into place. But there's always something different about Opening Day."

Miller will hand the ball to Mike Mussina, who faces Kansas City Royals right-hander Tim Belcher. A year ago, Miller forged a strong relationship with Mussina with broadcaster Mike Flanagan acting as his bridge. Today, Flanagan begins a second tour as pitching coach. Mussina, meanwhile, understands his relationship with Miller may become more distant.

"He'll be a slightly different person than he was as a coach. You almost have to be," Mussina says. "He's got his style, something you have to get used to. I don't foresee it as being a big problem, however. He's pretty easygoing. He was very easy to get along with as a pitching coach. I assume he'll be the same way as a manager."

For the first time since 1986, Miller begins a season in the manager's chair. Various publications have dubbed him the manager "on the spot." He has been handed the most expensive clubhouse in history, a team that won wire-to-wire last season, winning 98 games but still walking away from October with a sour taste.

The question: Will the job make Miller different, or will Miller make a difference?

Miller says he appreciates this opportunity more than his first shot, an abortive run with the 1985-1986 Minnesota Twins. Only seven others in major-league history have waited this long for a second shot.

"That wasn't a great situation. This should be. This team has a chance to win. I've got a great coaching staff and great players with plenty of support behind me. I don't know if you can ask for more than that," he says.

Well, a ring would be nice. But a comfortable relationship with all tiers of an organization stratified during the term of his predecessor, Davey Johnson, will do for a positive start.

"I think a manager has to adjust to his players, and I think the players have to adjust to the manager," says No. 3 starter Jimmy Key. "That happens during the course of a season."

Reliever Jesse Orosco, team elder and a strong backer of Johnson, says: "Ray's a smart man. He's a baseball man. Now, we get to see what he's made of."

Miller earned his staff's respect as a strong communicator last season. Now, he needs similarly to galvanize his position players. Early indications are good.

"I don't think the relationship necessarily has to change. I haven't seen that," catcher Chris Hoiles says. "If I have a question about the pitchers, I still feel I can go to Ray, even though I might go to Flanny 90 percent of the time now. I still see him as the same person as last year. His job has changed -- everybody recognizes that -- but I don't see Ray as having changed."

But he has made changes. Miller has consistently involved his coaches in his decision-making, something rare last year.

"It's more important that we make the right decision than for it necessarily to be seen as his decision," says hitting coach Rick Down.

Since his Nov. 11 hiring, Miller has attempted to represent a unifying force within a franchise long known for containing more factions than a Baltic nation. He has pushed for standardized instruction from Rookie-level clubs to the major leagues and tried to promote an easy rapport between coaches and players.

During the early weeks of camp, he maintained a record of his contacts with each player, using X's and O's to designate serious discussions and passing conversations. Once stereotyped as a team of 25 players hailing 25 cabs, the Orioles now appear comfortable with one another, a feeling enhanced by the presence of first-year bench coach Eddie Murray, outfielder Eric Davis and backup infielder Ozzie Guillen. Controversy decided to bypass Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this spring.

"It's not just pitchers hanging with pitchers or shortstops with second basemen here," Orosco says. "I don't see those barriers here."

Just as importantly, the wall dividing the Camden Yards first base dugout and the B&O warehouse has come down. Majority owner Peter Angelos can again like his manager.

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