2nd thoughts on Miller? Think again

September 28, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

You just knew this was coming. You just knew Orioles owner Peter Angelos would look for any excuse to avoid chopping down his precious oak tree.

Angelos reportedly decided in August that he would not retain manager Ray Miller. But now, the owner is said to be having second thoughts.

Why?

Because the Orioles are 19-6 in September.

Because they're two games under .500.

Because they might actually finish in third place!

Don't look now, but the Orioles are closing in on those hated Toronto Blue Jays. Don't look now, but until further notice, Miller remains manager for life.

Angelos has 72 hours after the end of the season to decide whether to exercise the option on Miller's contract. That makes the deadline a week from Wednesday, because, believe it or not, the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs.

The best guess is that Angelos will still dismiss Miller, who has failed to contend with two of the highest payrolls in major-league history.

Keeping him would widen too many rifts -- with the general manager, with the players, with the fans.

However Angelos wants to judge Miller -- from a business perspective, a baseball perspective or some combination of both -- his only rational conclusion can be that a change is necessary.

Start with the 3.5 million ticket buyers paying good money to watch an inferior product. The Orioles are terrified of alienating them and losing the huge gates that support their mammoth payrolls.

The problem is, the Orioles can't change many players for 2000, not with their roster offering little flexibility and the free-agent market little promise.

Their only fresh marketing tool might be a new manager.

It worked for the Ravens when they hired Brian Billick as coach. And it would work for the Orioles if they hired one of the top managerial candidates, be it Phil Garner, Buddy Bell or Don Baylor.

Such business concerns often influence the Orioles' decision-making, at times to the team's detriment -- part of the rationale for signing Albert Belle was his supposed box-office appeal.

But the baseball concerns with Miller are equally valid.

Who cares if the Orioles are 41-28 since the All-Star break? The season was lost when they went 36-51 in the first half and fell 12 1/2 games behind Boston for the wild card. The pressure has been off ever since.

Let's see Stat Albert produce when it matters. Let's see Mike Timlin close successfully for a team in contention. And let's see a new manager prevent the Orioles' third straight first-half collapse.

As presently constituted, the Orioles are a team of stat-driven veterans and eager-to-please rookies. It's a lethal combination, particularly with a manager benefiting from an expanded roster. No longer must Miller worry about running out of players. He always has someone available, and can pursue the matchups he desires without fear of consequences for his next move or next game.

Unfortunately, rosters are set at 25 from Opening Day until Sept. 1. And it is then that Miller's deficiencies would be exposed again.

Those deficiencies have been on display for two seasons. If Angelos doesn't trust his eyes, he can ask his players to confirm what he has seen.

Ask potential free agents Arthur Rhodes and Scott Kamieniecki if they would consider returning with Miller as manager. Ask Mike Mussina if he would agree to a contract extension.

The players won't criticize Miller publicly, and their opinions can't always be trusted. But Miller lost the clubhouse long ago, if he ever had it at all.

That should count for something.

So should the opinion of the general manager.

Frank Wren wanted to fire Miller in April. He squabbled with him in August. And he presumably has compiled a list of potential replacements, so he can finally name his own manager.

If Angelos again intercedes, Wren should just resign.

Maybe Angelos is waffling to enable Miller to leave with dignity -- a reasonable enough motivation, considering his fondness for the manager.

Or maybe Angelos held off firing Miller because he was waiting for a reason to justify keeping him -- and, flimsy as it is, the Orioles' September surge qualifies.

Whatever, the mere fact that Angelos is having second thoughts raises fresh doubt about whether he grasps the importance of the manager's position.

Before Angelos blames pitching for the Orioles' struggles, why not ask how the staff could perform so poorly under the direction of a former pitching coach?

Before he spends millions on new players, why not ask how much better the Orioles might play under a new manager?

Just as Billick appeared to be the only one in town who believed Scott Mitchell could succeed as the Ravens' quarterback, Angelos might be the only one who believes Miller should remain manager.

You knew this was coming.

If Angelos dares ask for a leap of faith, no one should jump.

Pub Date: 9/28/99

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