'99 Orioles a seasin of turmoil at the top

Baseball: The rift between Orioles owner Peter Angelos and first-year general manager Frank Wren opened early in the club's disappointing season, culminating in Wren's firing last week.

October 10, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Two days after the Orioles had played out their second straight losing season, six months of organizational rancor and intrigue reached a climax among first-year general manager Frank Wren, chief operating officer Joe Foss and Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse. A meeting Tuesday in a B&O warehouse third-floor conference room aired issues involving the team's revered third baseman, organizational control, Wren's leadership and his ability to deal with majority owner Peter Angelos.

Finally, Wren left Camden Yards that afternoon knowing that he would soon be the Orioles' former general manager.

The aftermath has demoralized the team's front office and reinforced an industry-wide perception of Angelos' overbearing presence within his team's baseball operations while also raising questions over the role of third baseman Cal Ripken in Wren's ouster.

Conversely, club sources give an account of Wren as a headstrong executive who disrespected subordinates, acted arbitrarily and never fulfilled his pledge to work hand-in-glove with Angelos. The accounts in this article are based on interviews throughout the season with organization and industry sources.

And for a third consecutive year, the Orioles begin the off-season with a search for either a general manager or a manager. With Wednesday's more anticipated firing of manager Ray Miller, this time they will go about both.

The Orioles announced Wren's firing Thursday night with an unusually detailed nine-paragraph document that devoted half its text to his decision to leave for a West Coast trip without Ripken on board.

It also criticized Wren for a "season-long series of incidents involving a variety of personnel matters, both with front-office staff and players."

A day before the Orioles were to begin their three-city, 11-game road trip, sudden crosswinds forced the charter to abort takeoff, sending it into a sliding fishtail that stopped only yards from the end of the runway.

The team was sent home and told to return the next morning for an 8 a.m. flight. The next day, Hurricane Floyd turned Ripken's normal 30-minute trek from his home in Reisterstown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport into a maze of detours.

Unsure of his location, Ripken reached Wren on his cell phone to tell him he was five to 10 minutes from the terminal. Noting that everyone else was on time, Wren turned to Miller and traveling secretary Phil Itzoe and asked his manager, "What do you think we should do?"

Miller replied, "Let's go."

Ripken improvised by securing a seat on a charter bound for Las Vegas out of Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. He arrived in Anaheim four hours after his teammates and made little secret of his displeasure.

One clubhouse source said Ripken "frosted" Wren for the rest of the season.

While some teammates were initially unaware that Ripken had been left behind, others were outraged.

"When things like that happen, usually the coaching staff and general manager go out of their way to help the team and the player. It was extremely unusual and uncalled for," said outfielder Brady Anderson, Ripken's closest friend on the team and the longest-tenured Oriole behind Ripken.

Ripken could not be reached for comment this past week, but several teammates confirmed that after backup catcher Lenny Webster failed to make a team charter in Atlanta, Miller convened a meeting in which he urged players to call if they knew they were going to be tardy.

That he had called, combined with the unusual weather, intensified Ripken's irritation.

"The bigger deal is the thought process. We have a game today on the West Coast. If it had been the starting pitcher, would he have left him behind? That's not very rational," Anderson said.

The club's prominent mention of Ripken in Thursday's news release further sensationalized what was already a hot issue in the industry.

A number of general managers endorsed Wren's decision, but club officials subtly acknowledged the third baseman's circumstances in the release, saying in part that "Orioles management cannot and will not abide having a general manager operate in such an unreasonable, authoritarian manner and treat anyone in this way, especially someone such as Cal who has done so much for the Orioles and for baseball."

Wren's confident, even cocky manner made a quick impression on many in the organization. A clubhouse faction referred to him as Frank Sinatra because of his substitution of "My Way" for the long-ago discarded "Oriole Way."

Wren saw himself as implementing methods that proved successful during his tenure with the Florida Marlins and Montreal Expos. Frustrated over Miller's failure to enforce dress codes, a ban on facial hair and punctuality, Wren hoped to send a message with the Ripken incident.

Long before the "recent episode of considerable concern," -- Foss' term for leaving Ripken behind -- Wren and ownership had clashed over Miller's status, the role of director of player personnel Syd Thrift and numerous other matters.

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