Tension adds up in debate over accountability

Inside the Orioles

Miller, players continue blaming each other for team's disastrous start

May 02, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

When Ray Miller called Tuesday's clubhouse meeting, he expected to close the doors, speak his piece, field a couple questions and be on the field within 15 minutes.

That the Orioles and their manager did not emerge for 34 minutes says much about a decaying situation that has gone from uncertain to combustible within 23 games. Though Tuesday's session apparently didn't approach last August's Chicago conference that almost resulted in a physical confrontation between Miller and second baseman Roberto Alomar, it did expose a frayed relationship that most believe will soon lead to Miller's dismissal.

If so, Miller's parting words will likely deal with "accountability." Indeed, it was the primary talking point of Tuesday's meeting, which produced sharp words among players and grievances against Miller. Miller has repeatedly admonished players for their failure to be accountable for their play during a disastrous 6-17 start. Players believe Miller guilty of the same crime.

Miller Miller's support within the clubhouse had begun to erode long before last Sunday's fiasco against the Athletics and his subsequent tirade. When he ripped into the team for lacking "courage" and "accountability," Miller only amplified existing sentiment among many of his players. A number of his tactical decisions have elicited quizzical looks from a veteran team; hence the request from one established player that Miller simply get out of the way and "just let the players play."

He seemed to have taken the suggestion. In the first three games after the meeting, he replaced only one position player -- Jeff Conine for pinch runner Rich Amaral in the eighth inning of Thursday's 15-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals. Miller also allowed Heathcliff Slocumb to throw 48 pitches during a horrific seven-run ninth inning that night.

The outing served as a nice parting gift. Slocumb received his release Friday afternoon.

"Even bad teams win four out of 10 games, and this is not a bad team," general manager Frank Wren said Friday. "We might not be a great club, but we're a good club, certainly a team that should be playing a lot better than we have to this point."

Miller said last Sunday: "Sometimes it basically boils down to courage on the field. When you get a chance to play in the big leagues, you're well-compensated for playing. You work hard to get here. But somewhere along the line a player has to stand up and speak for himself. I'm getting pretty tired of doing it."

On Tuesday, Miller emphasized that he had not apologized for his remarks.

For his part, Wren has chosen not to address Miller's status since April 14, when he insisted a 2-5 start should not doom the manager.

Owner Peter Angelos has yet to speak out, though club sources say he was prepared to fire Miller last Tuesday but reconsidered after conferring with his inner circle.

There is plenty of accountability to go around, a theme increasingly being mouthed in the warehouse. Slocumb's release forced the club to digest his $1.1 million contract less than a month after eating Chris Hoiles' $3.7 million salary. It also comes less than a month before an arbiter will be asked to decide if the Orioles owe reliever Xavier Hernandez $2.5 million after signing him to a two-year contract, placing him on their 40-man roster and then voiding the deal after belatedly learning of his partially torn rotator cuff.

A potential $7.3 million burp is tough to digest, even if more than half results from a 5-year-old decision to sign Hoiles.

Wren has found himself in an almost untenable position from the start. He also finds himself included in the swirl of organizational intrigue because of an $84 million payroll that has yet to click.

Hired Oct. 23, he had to restock a high-visibility franchise through free agency rather than concede 1999 would be a rebuilding season. As recently as Friday he used the term "transitional." No one expected "disastrous."

However, Wren's hiring date parked him behind other general managers who had laid groundwork on several names he targeted. Baltimore native Brian Jordan, Todd Stottlemyre, Jose Offerman and Robin Ventura benefited from the Orioles' involvement but had no intention of signing here. The Orioles did not even make the first cut in bidding for Randy Johnson.

Wren, here on a three-year contract, also finds himself in the delicate position of supporting a manager he did not hire and apparently cannot fire.

Asked about Slocumb's release, Wren said much by saying little. "I felt bad about it," he said. "You wonder what we might have been able to find out if we were playing OK. We could have waited longer, perhaps. This hasn't been the ideal situation, to say the least."

No matter how well the Orioles play beginning today, they have probably accelerated the transitional process Wren vaguely alluded to during spring training. Calvin Pickering is expected to join the club this week. Gabe Molina arrived yesterday. Ryan Minor, Jerry Hairston and maybe Matt Riley could be here by late July. Other changes, and more questions of accountability, may come even sooner.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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