O's manager well aware that Miller time is ending

Inside the Orioles

He knows he will be fall guy after disappointing season

October 03, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ray Miller comprehends the inevitable when he sees it. That he also can feel it, hear it and taste it makes the sense only more palpable that this afternoon's game will be his last as Orioles manager.

The Orioles must decide whether to exercise the option on Miller's contract before Thursday. Orioles officials have given no indication to believe that a search for Miller's successor won't be under way before the postseason's first pitch. Miller says he will remain in town until told.

Miller says if fired he isn't likely to pursue an opening elsewhere as pitching coach as the last two years have constantly tested him professionally and personally -- so much so that he asked Peter Angelos to fire him several times this season if the majority owner thought it in his franchise's best interest. During his term, Miller lost a father-in-law he considered a respected and close friend, a man whose name he still uses as an alias on the road. Family crises back home in Ohio have tugged at him throughout the year.

"If it wasn't for the three hours in here [the dugout] every night I would have quit a long time ago," Miller says.

None of this season's ironies is more biting than Miller's probable parting gift. With a September roster freshened with youth, the Orioles constructed the league's longest overall winning streak (13 games) and longest road winning streak (10) at a time when many also-rans are arranging tee times.

"No one can take away the fact that this team has been resilient all season. There have been about 15 times when these guys could have quit. Nobody focuses on that, but I've seen it," Miller says.

Miller has seen much these two years. More than the owner who has cloistered himself from local sports media and more than a front office that must parse its words for fear of retribution by ownership, Miller has served as team spokesman during a time when the questions have rarely been easy and frequently numbskull, and the commentary sometimes downright nasty. When Miller said little critical during the team's halting start, he was criticized for pandering to an $84 million clubhouse.

"I've tried to be honest with [the media]," says Miller. "Sometimes that's not the easiest thing."

Miller says he will not accept another position within the organization if offered.

"I don't fault myself, and I certainly don't fault my staff," said Miller. "I've seen progress within the organization the last two years, and I feel part of that."

But this is a franchise increasingly afraid of its own shadow, a place where a former assistant GM once felt so certain his media contacts were being chronicled that reporters were asked not to call him at his office or approach him in view of the warehouse.

General manager Frank Wren's contract apparently contains a clause stating any comment considered critical of ownership is grounds for voiding his three-year, $1.65 million deal.

Miller, who says he neither politicked for the job nor served as Angelos' lackey after gaining it, has been left to take the arrows while others higher on the food chain remain silent.

By preserving a man he considers a trusted friend in the face of "a lynch mob mentality," Angelos only subjected him to undue further abuse. Now the inevitable nears.

A convincing case can be made that Miller was not the right manager for this team. Few would be. Filled with marquee players enjoying no-trade status, unusual contractual perks and the ability to flaunt conventional team practices, the Orioles cry for a manager with the confidence and the resume to impose his will. However, precisely those qualities have long brought employees into conflict with the team's hierarchy.

Saying much by saying little, Miller said Friday, "I would hate to be in this situation as a young manager who needs the money. It would drive you crazy."

True, Miller burned his relievers in April like a pack of Lucky Strikes and ultimately lost the respect of several factions within the clubhouse. While watching a recent run through the bullpen, a warehouse type offered diplomatically, "He likes to warm up his relievers a lot." Ricky Bones once got up four times in one afternoon. Arthur Rhodes counted six times in a doubleheader. And the abrupt May release of Heathcliff Slocumb represented his most obvious disagreement with Wren.

"You look at the premier bullpens and they have young arms," Miller says. "It's not a big deal to pitch two or three straight days." Jesse Orosco, 43 next season, sees only left-handers. Closer Mike Timlin is most effective when saved for the ninth inning. Before being lost to a finger injury in August, Rhodes had trouble pitching on consecutive days. Miller can recite every team's bullpen statistics as if they were his home phone.

Miller, 54, will always be an accomplished pitching coach who has tutored seven 20-game winners and three Cy Young Award winners. As a manager, he entered last night's game with a career 266-295 record and nothing better than a fourth-place finish in four seasons. He has learned what Johnny Oates, Phil Regan and Johnson found out before him, that sitting in the manager's chair at Camden Yards only diminishes its occupant.

Oates left Baltimore a nervous wreck, Regan a paranoid and Johnson virtually muted by Angelos' anger over his swagger.

The manager stops for a moment to think of what's ahead of him but he can't help but reflect on what's behind. Miller cups his hand, glances at the dugout floor and takes one last drag. "I know," he says, "I've never cheated any man for a dime."

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