Orioles' discord getting louder

Miller, Wren sniping raises venting over '99 to a new level

August 31, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

One called the other's handiwork "dysfunctional."

The other said of the one's assessment, "I don't think that's valid at all."

And so it has come to this: In the dog days of August, a manager who entered this season with no guarantees and a first-year general manager charged with shaking up the sedentary Orioles franchise acknowledge their discordant visions.

When general manager Frank Wren and manager Ray Miller offered veiled criticism of each other last weekend in Detroit, the biggest surprise was that their different views had remained cloaked this long.

Miller perceives a "dysfunctional" clubhouse and a season in which little tangible progress has been made at the major-league level. Wren is attempting to shepherd the franchise through a difficult "transition" that has left an $84 million payroll subject to ridicule throughout the industry. In most places, it wouldn't have reached this point.

Majority owner Peter Angelos assured Wren last October that the manager was his call, a precondition for virtually every lead baseball executive in the game.

By late April, Wren recognized the assurance as folly. When the Orioles returned from Tampa Bay 3-12 on April 23, Wren urged Miller be dismissed. Angelos refused.

Several times, Miller himself has suggested that Angelos fire him if he felt it in the organization's best interest. Angelos again balked, not wanting to transfer Tom Trebelhorn as director of player development to interim manager.

Wren, whose contract extends through 2001, believes that player development has made a "quantum leap" in his 10 months as general manager.

Miller sees the same absence of speed, the same thin pitching and the same light production from the lower third of his batting order that led him to criticize former general manager Pat Gillick and assistant Kevin Malone at the end of last season.

Then Miller expressed a sense of abandonment. As a lame duck, the sensation has increased exponentially, with players criticizing his tactics and communication.

A number of pitchers regularly ignore commands from the dugout. One position player recently blasted Miller as "incompetent" through an open door. Approached by Chicago reporters Aug. 20, right fielder Albert Belle answered a question about this season by saying, "Don't ask."

Wren and Miller have remained cordial throughout the season. Even while venting last weekend, neither mentioned the other by name. But Miller entered this season without assurances for 2000. His emphasis remains on winning each game. Wren is geared toward reconstruction, even if short-term sacrifices are required.

Miller groused publicly when left with what amounted to a 22-man roster Saturday afternoon. That the Orioles suffered their 22nd one-run loss only intensified the manager's feelings.

Wren countered Sunday by reminding, "If we were in a pennant race, we would've had three guys [Mike Mussina, Arthur Rhodes, Jim Corsi] on the disabled list. When every game is so precious, you can't afford to have a 22-man roster. But we're not in a pennant race."

At the same time, Miller feels his dignity as a manager is at stake. "When it goes bad, I'm the one who gets the blame," he said during the last homestand.

This weekend's airing gave voice to the splayed priorities that have colored this season, even before Opening Day.

Miller pushed for a 12th pitcher to begin the season, but the front office preferred that third baseman Willis Otanez make the team, even after the acquisition of Jeff Conine appeared to make Otanez's presence unnecessary.

After the pitching staff burned in April, Otanez, out of options, was released on May 25. Lacking patience with his bullpen, Miller also was granted his wish over Wren's misgivings when middle reliever Heathcliff Slocumb was released less than two months into the season.

Four regulars are in place to play more than 152 games. Catcher Charles Johnson, who averaged 126 games the previous three seasons, is on pace for 139 this year.

The 58-72, fourth-place Orioles are a team vainly searching for purpose. So what's left?

B.J. Surhoff might still end up leading the American League in hits while constructing his first 100-RBI season. In his 13th season, Surhoff already has established career highs for runs, hits, home runs, RBIs and outfield assists. All that's missing is 26 hits for 200, and 38 to eclipse Cal Ripken's franchise record (211), established in 1983.

Ripken may return tonight against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after spending the entire month on the disabled list. If so, he has 32 games to compile the 32 hits he needs to reach 3,000. Ripken also has been stuck on 399 home runs since July 25.

By his own stratospheric standards as well as the expectations created by his five-year, $65 million contract, Belle has endured a disappointing season. He exited last August with 41 home runs and 123 RBIs, compared to his current 29 homers and 87 RBIs.

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