With sinning team, Angelos has patience of saint

May 23, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Watching his $84 million baseball expenditure underperform in such a disturbing way has been a woeful embarrassment and painful experience for Peter Angelos. At times, he must feel as if such money best be spent on some other personal pursuit or else marked as a donation to one of his favorite charities -- for which he does ample.

Angelos is responsible for meeting one of baseball's highest payrolls. Off what has happened so far in 1999, he has gotten only a last-place return on his investment. He might just as well be throwing it to the four winds, because when you check the standings the team isn't providing him with anything close to value received.

He explains his reluctance to discharge manager Ray Miller by saying the frenzy to do so approaches an "almost lynching mentality." Maybe he doesn't think that, but he's making a verbal point that draws attention. But, in truth, when you assess what's there, the Orioles don't have a ready replacement available, as happened when Hank Bauer was given the hook in 1968 and Earl Weaver assumed command.

Asked if Tom Trebelhorn, the club's director of player development, would be a possibility to take over, he answered sternly: "He has experience in the job, but I don't want to do that. In a short time, he has made improvements within our farm system. I don't think it's in our future best interest to interrupt him now."

Yes, Angelos, an independent thinker, has parted with winning managers in the past, accruing strong criticism, but, by his own rationale, refuses to back off the losingest manager, who happens to be Miller, in his history as a club owner. "I'm not going to rule out changes, but a lot that happened has been beyond this man's control. Until I can logically convince myself that it's of his making, then I can't come to the conclusion of blaming the manager."

Although Angelos has separated himself from managers Johnny Oates, Phil Regan and Davey Johnson and general managers Roland Hemond and Pat Gillick, plus assistants Doug Melvin and Kevin Malone, he says most of them left on their own. "In my law office, I believe I've fired two employees in 37 years. Does that sound as if I'm someone who enjoys terminating people?"

What does he think of the working relationship between general manager Frank Wren and Miller? The fact Miller talks, one-on-one, with Angelos on frequent occasions, is no surprise because such a condition was spelled out after the departure of Johnson, who asked for what amounted to a three-year contract extension.

How Wren and Miller operate may not lend itself to an established chain of command, but the Angelos and Miller arrangement was agreed upon long before Wren arrived in Baltimore. It wasn't done to circumvent the incoming GM. "We gave Frank his head [meaning he was on his own to make decisions]," said Angelos. "He's a hard worker and well-organized."

Angelos didn't suggest Wren is in trouble, but his acquisitions of Mike Timlin and Delino DeShields and the bungling of the Xavier Hernandez negotiations was an embarrassment. And expensive. But Wren, in his first year, would be expected to make rookie mistakes.

Wren's predecessor, Gillick, with a gilded reputation and Angelos' open checkbook, was a disappointment in Baltimore. Maybe it was traceable to when Angelos properly vetoed his idea of trading David Wells and Bobby Bonilla on July 26, l996, with the team only five games out of the wild-card spot. It was surrendering the season prematurely, and Angelos told him no because he believed ticket-holders deserved a full effort from the organization. On that occasion, Angelos saved Gillick from himself.

Gillick didn't like being told he couldn't deal and quickly disappeared from his Orioles office, going off to Latin America on a surprise scouting mission. It smacked of a petulant reaction. His wings had been clipped, and he never seemed content after that, except on payday. Angelos was right, Gillick wrong. The Orioles made the playoffs that year because Angelos made the call.

It came to the club's attention that a Boston writer and announcer mentioned John and Louis, sons of Peter, were trying to relate strategy to Johnson. Not so, they said. The source for what Angelos cites as a fabricated story was a former club executive whose name wasn't Gillick.

Before the announcement of Wren's appointment, this reporter believed Baltimorean Joe Klein, a general manager with three different American League clubs, was the most capable applicant. In fact, when Gillick was hired, in late 1995, Klein was told he was the second choice and offered a position as Gillick's assistant.

However, the Orioles never interviewed Klein or talked with him last fall. They only hurt themselves by not learning what he had to offer. We even sat in on a mock interview Klein had as questions were simulated that the Orioles might ask. He was fully prepared. But he never got to present his ideas.

The defense of Miller by Angelos is strong and so far unyielding, but if the team continues to regress, then he'll have no other option. "Tell me how the manager was responsible for Mr. Erickson starting the season 0-5," Angelos said. "Or how he made Mike Mussina pitch in such an exceptional manner the other night. Sure, he makes mistakes. What manager doesn't? Could he be blamed for B. J. Surhoff, a top contributor, running off third base, thinking it was two outs, on a pop fly?"

This is all part of Peter Angelos' perspective on a season that, as poorly as the Orioles have played, still isn't over. It's encouraging, in a left-handed sort of way, to realize they've hit rock bottom and probably can't get any worse.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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