There's much static on Orioles' farm line Rodriguez incident shows communication problems

Inside the Orioles

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

When Ray Miller was named to succeed Davey Johnson as manager last November, much was made of the Oriole Way, an organizational Old Testament containing the codified method of character, dress, instruction and attitude that long ago transcended major and minor leagues, position players and pitchers. It was supposed to make a comeback under Miller with the imprimatur of owner Peter Angelos.

Then last week happens. Or more specifically, last Monday, with the pawn an uncertain and apparently injured rookie right-hander named Nerio Rodriguez.

Within 36 hours, the gulf that separates the major- and minor-league operations came into painfully sharp focus. At best, it helped cost the Orioles a game against the Seattle Mariners. At worst, it may have impeded the development of one of the organization's handful of prospects. Either way, the incident caused a flurry of phone calls among Rodriguez's agent, Drew Sacrifico; general manager Pat Gillick's office; Miller's desk; and minor-league director Syd Thrift.

Rodriguez ended the week on the big-league 15-day disabled list with shoulder tendinitis after the club voided his option to Triple-A Rochester. Wednesday, he couldn't lift his arm above his shoulder.

The Orioles ended the week wearing an egg facial because of poor communication that made Oriole Way resemble a dimly lighted back alley. "There are several different versions going around," Gillick said Friday. "Somebody doesn't have their story right."

The saga began when Jimmy Key couldn't complete a twice-postponed side session in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday afternoon.

Gillick and Malone were contacted in Fresno, Calif., while scouting for this week's amateur draft. As a precaution, a decision was made to put Key on the disabled list, retroactive to May 21. Miller asked for Rodriguez, who had started in place of Scott Kamieniecki against the Anaheim Angels on April 28, allowing four runs in 4 1/3 innings. Miller sent along instructions for him to refine a slider.

Rodriguez -- impressive (2-1, 4.91 ERA) during last September's recall after leading the International League in strikeouts -- has struggled since spring training. His fastball and changeup have lacked the same movement and precision. Triple-A hitters reached him for a 5.47 ERA and six home runs in 24 2/3 innings.

What happened next represents "a communication problem," according to all concerned.

Gillick says medical reports indicate Rodriguez was "clean" for two weeks before his promotion.

Rochester manager Marv Foley and pitching coach Larry McCall signed off on Rodriguez before his promotion, according to Gillick.

Yet in the hours before Monday night's game, the Orioles' training staff received a phone call from Rochester notifying it that Rodriguez had suffered shoulder stiffness the previous week. Gillick and Malone asked Rodriguez how he felt.

Predictably, with the alternative begging out after a 2,500-mile plane trip, Rodriguez said fine. Later he acknowledged feeling "weak" in the shoulder the week before.

After a very predictable 1 1/3 -inning start in which seven of 11 hitters reached and five scored, Miller bluntly criticized the player-development system.

"It's probably not fair to Nerio, but there's got to be somebody else there," he fumed.

The problem, according to Thrift, is "there was nobody else." The Orioles already have call-ups Bobby Munoz, Doug Johns and Sidney Ponson. Johns is in the rotation. Ponson is the closer of the week, and Munoz has yet to show anything in relief. Joel Bennett (4-0, 4.02 ERA) and Richie Lewis (26 strikeouts, 24 1/3 innings, 4.44 ERA) are not on the 40-man roster, and either would have had to pitch on short rest to make Monday's start.

"I think some of this has been quite overblown," Thrift said. "There weren't any other options available, and nobody knew Nerio was hurt."

This wasn't the first case of internal miscommunication, which only further aggravated Miller. During last year's late-season slide the Orioles promoted Brian Williams from Rochester to make a start. Not until Williams arrived did they learn he had made 100 pitches two days before.

Thrift spoke with Miller on Thursday. The conversation became heated. Thrift later categorized the manager's criticism as "pretty unfair." Rodriguez had an arthrogram Thursday that did not reveal any structural damage.

Last week's incident is a symptom of the Orioles' horizontal hierarchy. Those on the major-league side insist that their instruction and methods are ignored once their top prospects return to an affiliate. Thrift, who complains "no one comes to see us," operates with near autonomy from Gillick. Hence, the "communication problems" that might be less prevalent in a more vertical structure.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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