Cuba game has hold on Miller's fate

May 01, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Should Ray Miller thank Fidel Castro or curse him?

On one hand, the president for life probably saved the manager for life from getting fired, if only for the moment.

On the other hand, Miller stands as the latest symbol of Castro's oppression, shackled to the Orioles due to circumstances beyond his control.

Twice this week, the Orioles produced vintage fire-the-manager moments, with Miller highlighting the first by questioning his team's courage and character.

But Sunday's 11-10 loss to Oakland and post-game meltdown didn't get Miller fired. Neither did Thursday's embarrassing 15-5 loss to Kansas City.

Evidently, owner Peter Angelos is unwilling to change managers until after Monday night's exhibition against Cuba.

Who knows?

If the Orioles get hot -- and hot for this team would be winning back-to-back games before Y2K -- Miller might even last as long as Castro.

Not that Miller was counting on it before last night's 7-1 victory over Minnesota.

"You're accountable for your actions -- everyone is, including me," Miller said. "I'm 5-16. That's not very good."

Indeed, Miller has seemed almost resigned to his fate since Tuesday's tense 34-minute team meeting, in which players urged him to "let the players play."

Miller hasn't used a pinch hitter in the four games since after trying 22 in the Orioles' first 18 games. But his only way out might be to defect in a "people-to-people exchange" for Cuban third baseman Omar Linares.

The manager saw the writing on the wall after splattering it with food.

The players barely seem to tolerate him.

And for the first time since the opening of Camden Yards in 1992, the Orioles face significant blocks of empty seats at this stage of the season, even though their average paid crowd is 40,566.

So, why didn't Angelos just get this over with?

Because he apparently was occupied with the details surrounding the Cuba game. And because he apparently wanted to give the appearance of stability, especially now with the Cuban delegation arriving.

Of course, no amount of pomp and circumstance can hide the unfortunate truth -- the Orioles represent a decaying capitalist enterprise; the Cubans, a decaying communist nation.

But in a sense, Angelos couldn't win.

He didn't want the embarrassment of changing managers before the exhibition. But with the Orioles assured of no better than an 8-16 record by Monday, he's facing embarrassment, anyway.

You could argue that the Cuba game should not even enter his thinking on Miller, that the chance to salvage the season is far more important than a meaningless exhibition.

But does anyone truly believe that the season can be salvaged, even with a new manager?

Miller must go and Miller will go, barring a dramatic change in the team's fortunes. But in the grand scheme of things, the timing -- last week, next week, two weeks from now -- is almost irrelevant.

As much as Angelos doesn't want to fire Miller, his loyalty to him only goes so far. If the owner truly believed that a new manager would help, Miller would have been gone by now.

A new manager can't help. Sacrificing Heathcliff Slocumb can't help. Nothing can help, at least not dramatically enough to push the Orioles into contention.

Angelos tried to save baseball during the strike of 1994-95. He's trying to revive Baltimore through various projects. And he's trying to change the world by reaching out to Cuba.

Yet, his baseball team seems beyond repair, at least for 1999.

The Orioles got younger yesterday by replacing Slocumb, 32, with right-hander Gabe Molina, 23. They got seven outstanding innings from Sidney Ponson, 22. And they figure to promote most of their top prospects before season's end.

Beyond that, there isn't much else they can do.

They're old. They're overpaid. They're 8 1/2 games out. But with 11 players under multi-year contracts, they would be restricted from launching a massive rebuilding effort in which they would dump high-salaried veterans for prospects.

It's not as if they have much to offer.

The average age of their players under multi-year contracts is 34.

Albert Belle, Brady Anderson and Mike Mussina already own no-trade clauses. And a player traded in the middle of a multi-year contract has the right to demand another trade at the end of the season, or a renegotiation of his contract. If his demand is not met, he can become a free agent.

The Orioles acquired Juan Guzman last season under such conditions, but such trades generally produce low returns. How much would a team give for Scott Erickson knowing that he might demand a raise from $6 million, or Mike Timlin knowing he might want to be traded again?

Players like Will Clark (two years, $11 million) and Delino DeShields (three years, $13.5 million) should be satisfied with their contracts and attractive to contenders. But the Orioles most likely to be traded are eligible free agents -- Guzman, Lenny Webster, Arthur Rhodes, Harold Baines.

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