Hargrove shows O's why he's a winner

Manager: Mixing a no-nonsense approach with the ability to correct but not demean, the ousted Indians boss has Orioles veterans circling the wagons in support.

April 03, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The February moment remains. On a back field with no outsiders visible, Mike Hargrove observed a fundamentals drill among a group of young players become a farce.

No longer willing to watch silently, Hargrove stalked onto the diamond, turned the air blue and ordered the players and those coaches running the drill off the field. The offending parties were later informed they would return and do the drill correctly or else spend the entire day repeating it.

"That," says first baseman Will Clark, "hasn't been done before."

Today officially makes last season a memory for the Orioles and their new manager. Hargrove follows Ray Miller by bringing five consecutive American League Central titles and two World Series appearances out of Cleveland. Today, the Orioles are willing to trust the manager's office.

"You have to have confidence in the manager to put you in the best position to succeed," says today's Orioles starter, Mike Mussina. "With Cleveland, he did that, and for the first six or seven weeks I've been around him I believe he's done it over here. He understands the length of a season, what it's like to play every day or pitch out of a bullpen. You can't live and die for one particular game if it's going to jeopardize the rest of the season or even the next two days to do it."

Starting his 14th pro season, Clark has seen all types, and Hargrove already has sold him.

Clark first played for the fatherly Roger Craig with the San Francisco Giants, followed by the more outgoing Dusty Baker. Before coming to the Orioles last season, he played under the administrative Johnny Oates. In Hargrove, he recognizes a plan and the confidence to install it.

The back-field reprimand was unusual only because Hargrove typically prefers a less open setting. A tunnel leading from the dugout or an unruffled moment in the outfield during batting practice can accomplish much while drawing little attention.

"Unless the guys in here are looking, they can't see it done, either," says Clark, who easily possesses the clubhouse's sharpest antenna. "That's the way it should be. I've told him, `You've got all the respect in the world, not only from me, but from all the players because of the way you treat everybody.' It's not public. It's the way it should be. It's the way it was done 10 or 15 years ago."

Whatever edge Hargrove can derive from the change he represents, he'll take. Hargrove's Orioles open the season with their most durable starting pitcher, Scott Erickson, on the disabled list, projected No. 3 starter Jason Johnson in the minors, Mussina's contract status uncertain and several position players coming off injury-abbreviated springs. The Orioles are again a veteran team usually described as old.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift has presented Hargrove a renovated bullpen that may be significantly improved over the '99 version, but Thrift also has his skeptics.

"I think, based on the last two seasons, those perceptions are legitimate. But based on the personnel we have on this ballclub, our expectations and perceptions of ourselves are higher -- and not unreasonably so," says Hargrove. "We're going to go as far as our pitching will let us. Scott Erickson is ahead of schedule. I think our bullpen -- as maligned as it is -- has a chance to be a very good bullpen. It never bothers me when people have lower expectations."

Hargrove arrived from a front office environment in which reaching the postseason became a formality and winning a World Series expected. Ultimately, the front office perceived the performance as drab and believed Hargrove its personification; hence the need for a fresh "voice" within the clubhouse, according to team president John Hart, after October's upset loss to the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series.

Hargrove held his tongue after October's firing, but offensive/defensive coordinator Brian Graham, who first coached for Hargrove in 1987 at Single-A Kinston, perceived the dismissal as "weak" and at least partly because of the manager's disdain for clutching for credit.

"He doesn't want to be in front of the parade," says Graham. "He wants to be the driving force behind the parade. That's never changed."

The scheduling coincidence that pits Hargrove's former team against his current one today doesn't escape the Orioles manager. He's not crazy about it but says: "The only way it would be more ironic is if it was in Cleveland. I'm glad we're in Baltimore, not Cleveland."

Still, if Hargrove walks a little slowly to home plate today, it is because some deep bruises have yet to heal. "I don't think anybody ever gets over when they get hurt. You take it and put in a spot and let it heal over for a while," he says.

"Every now and then the scab comes off. But as far as me being an Oriole as opposed to me being an Indian, when I think of Mike Hargrove, I think of Mike Hargrove as an Oriole. I've turned the page. I've got a lot of fond memories, but that's what they are -- memories."

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