Miller's managerial mire: There's no margin for error

May 07, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Ray Miller was asked if he was happy about winning a second straight series after losing so many in a row that you needed an abacus to keep count.

"I'm happy about today," the Orioles' manager said after a 4-2 win over the White Sox yesterday at Camden Yards. "I'm going to enjoy one day and worry about it tomorrow."

What's the unidentified "it" that he'll resume worrying about today? Let us count the possibilities.

There's his job security, which remains tenuous at best despite four wins in a row and six in the last nine games.

There's the rest of the season, which looks a little better now after a week of mostly well-pitched games, but remains an $84 million bust until proven otherwise.

Oh, and let's not forget the 10-game road trip that begins tonight in Detroit and ends with series against the Indians and Rangers, two tough teams.

Given all that, can you blame Miller for basking in any short-lived, positive moment and worrying about tomorrow when tomorrow comes?

The season's first winning streak has bought the manager and his team a little time, but it also has demon strated how ruinous their 4-14 start was.

Even after a feel-good sweep of the White Sox, Miller is still one modest-sized losing streak away from getting fired, the team still has the American League's worst record and the fans, well, let's just say many are still a lot closer to fatalistic than optimistic.

In other words, the 4-14 start and Monday night's international embarrassment against Cuba have exhausted all supplies of leeway that existed on Opening Day.

Miller has no leeway left with owner Peter Angelos, and the team has no leeway left with the fans, who continue to fill a lot of seats at Camden Yards, but not nearly as many as before.

Basically, Camden Yards has become a patience-free zone.

Six wins in nine games is better than six losses in nine games, but it will take at least another month of consistent winning to ease the pressure on Miller and quell the prevailing doubts about a team with numerous flaws.

"We're playing better, but we still have a long, long way to go," outfielder B. J. Surhoff said yesterday. "We dug ourselves a deep hole."

Seldom does a team admit that as early as the first week of May, just a fraction of the way into the long season.

But seldom does a high-priced team just up and collapse in April.

"It happened when I was in Toronto in 1994," closer Mike Timlin said. "We'd won back-to-back World Series and we had a lot of the same guys [back], but nothing went right. The season started badly and never got better. It was a disaster. We went from first to worst in the AL East."

Having experienced that, Timlin couldn't say that the Orioles were bound to shake off their slow start and start winning.

"You can't say that we will and you can't say that we won't," he said. "I look around this room and I think we have a good team. But you have to play it out."

There's a chance for better results if the starting pitching continues to improve. Sidney Ponson's seven strong innings yesterday were another good sign.

"It all comes down to that, obviously," Surhoff said. "It's not too hard to figure out."

But improved starting pitching only means the Orioles have a chance to win, as opposed to no chance when the starters are getting blown away. Even if the starters hold, this team still has an ordinary offense, an average defense, a shaky bullpen and a clubhouse in crisis after Miller's "go ask the players" outburst 12 days ago.

That Miller survived that episode was mildly miraculous, but it reduced his security to a daily question mark, a highly fragile condition from which few managers escape.

He could be in trouble trying to pass through Cleveland and Texas, where there's the threat of former Orioles making the current Orioles look bad.

Asked about the trip, Miller said, "Everyone was fairly focused on this [Chicago] series. We'll just leave it at that."

In other words, he was going to enjoy this day because the next one might not be, well, so enjoyable.

But hey, yesterday's performance was indeed one to savor. The defense was flawless, the hitters delivered often enough in the clutch and the pitching handoffs went perfectly -- starter to setup man to closer.

It was no wonder that the crowd was standing and cheering as Timlin recorded the last out, just three days after the Cuba fiasco. This was a day of sound, solid baseball, the kind the Orioles have seldom played.

On such a day, it seemed inconceivable that the Orioles could wind up anywhere other than in the thick of the AL wild- card race. They do have the talent.

But after what they did in April, or, more accurately, what they didn't do, who has that kind of faith in them?

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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