Wren fiasco costs O's in more ways than one

Inside the Orioles

Ex-GM gets big bucks

club reputation takes hit

Orioles

May 14, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Frank Wren was working for the Atlanta Braves in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Wednesday night when he referred to the "last chapter of the year we spent in Baltimore."

Now assistant general manager for the Atlanta Braves, he spoke as a man fired as Orioles general manager eight months ago then told that he would not be paid the balance of his three-year, $1.35 million contract. The Orioles said he was fired "for cause." Wren claimed he was fired because of fundamental disagreements with majority owner Peter Angelos.

The difference in interpretation was worth a little more than $400,000, and Monday commissioner Bud Selig ruled Angelos would have to pay, minus the amount of an outstanding housing loan given Wren when hired.

The Orioles, who fully believed they could set a precedent by proving cause, said it was worth the money to be rid of an executive who sparred repeatedly and, on at least one occasion, profanely with Angelos at his Charles Street law offices.

Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse said: "The Orioles felt separation was absolutely necessary for the well-being of the entire organization and worth the price that was imposed. ... There were a wide range of issues and complaints about Frank throughout the organization. There were a host of reasons for the Orioles to take the action that was taken."

Wren reacted with restraint, saying, '`I am glad that we prevailed."

There is no court of appeal in this instance. Angelos must pay a man he considered "a lightweight" within weeks of his hiring while a bruise many thought had faded was exposed once more for public viewing.

Instead of following through on a settlement drafted last Oct. 6, the Orioles used Wren's vanilla quotes in The Sun the day after his firing - "I'm probably most sorry we won't be able to finish what we started," Wren said at the time - as pretext for taking him through a distended bout of binding arbitration.

The process became fraught with personal innuendo and strong-arm legal tactics, never mind the fact it placed Selig in a political bind. For $400,000 - the difference between the balance of Wren's contract with the Orioles and his deal as John Schuerholz's assistant in Atlanta - the Orioles might have avoided this. Instead, the very perception that they have sought to erase within the industry - as legalistic, vindictive and petty - was reinforced.

The Orioles cited numerous Wren moves - the signing of closer Mike Timlin to a four-year contract; the unauthorized announcement of an agreement with sore-shouldered Xavier Hernandez; his refusal to order a team charter to wait for Cal Ripken before a cross-country flight; and his sharp rebukes of several employees - as representing "cause." Also mentioned was that while in Angelos' presence Wren described director of player personnel Syd Thrift as an organizational "cancer" and described team orthopedic physician Michael Jacobs and internist William Goldiner as "quacks."

Angelos ordered Wren to apologize. Wren apologized to the doctors but never to Thrift.

Wren held that he was fired for performance, which does not allow his contract to be voided.

Selig found himself in an untenable position. Finding for the Orioles would have invited chaos as executives' contracts could be voided at an owner's whim. (Angelos cited Wren's incompetence as one factor in his firing. However, the Braves, considered the game's model organization, believed Wren fit enough to hire him within a week of his ouster.) At the same time, Selig will need Angelos' support in pending labor talks.

Sources familiar with proceedings say Selig expanded the process to allow the Orioles two additional rounds of arguments. A ruling expected by late February dragged for two more months. Interpreting this as an endorsement of their position, the Orioles never sought compromise.

Calling the issue an '`internal matter," Selig sought to keep secret his ruling, an impossibility given the interest it had stirred within every other major-league front office.

Selig refused comment Wednesday night after both parties had confirmed the ruling. Such a reaction would have been unthinkable given the involvement of a New York franchise. But in this instance, a central office source said Selig feared "embarrassing" the Orioles' lawyer-owner.

There was nothing subtle about the scorched-earth process. Mid-level Orioles employees were summoned for depositions by team attorneys and presented prepared affadavits claiming malfeasance by Wren. All they had to do was sign. Many believed that failure to sign invited personal loss. The club also quoted witnesses it never interviewed to impugn Wren's integrity.

Former manager Ray Miller signed an affadavit saying he did not endorse Wren's decision to have the charter leave without Ripken. Miller, fired the same day as Wren, received a $100,000 severance package. (Wren's attorney, former Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad, was granted a request for confidentiality during the proceedings.)

With the Orioles, there is much evidence that says, in the end, it's always personal. Wren's predecessor, Pat Gillick, and Angelos did not speak for six months before Gillick walked away. Kevin Malone left indignant after being offered nothing more than a one-year contract plus a one-year option to be Gillick's successor. One former Orioles executive recently noted the dispersal of former employees is so widespread within the industry that the perception may be indelible.

"I think the biggest aspect of this finally being settled is that we can finally move forward. We're settled in Atlanta. We're happy. We're looking to move forward," said Wren.

For the Orioles, the damages only begin with a check.

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