Hargrove rare bright spot in a season turning bleak

July 09, 2000|By John Eisenberg

As the Orioles limp into the All-Star break in the same, sad shape as a year ago, former manager Ray Miller, the anointed scapegoat for the debacle of 1999, surely is feeling vindicated.

The 2000 season has been a carbon copy of '99 in many ways, with a weak bullpen, a lack of speed and general mediocrity consigning the Orioles to the depths of the American League East.

Replacing Miller with Mike Hargrove hasn't seemed to help much, at least not with the won-lost record.

But when you dig below the record, you find evidence that, strangely enough, the disappointing first half of 2000 actually has confirmed that Hargrove is a major upgrade over his fired predecessor.

Maybe the record is the same, but the attitude and atmosphere aren't.

"Thing are different this year, much cooler and calmer," first baseman Will Clark said. "We're not happy with the record, but Mike's in our corner and he's not going to panic."

That's what some Orioles felt Miller did in his two-year tenure as losses mounted and the manager turned up the critical heat. Remember his famous "They're the ones making all the money" tantrum?

Hargrove's team has fared little better, but Hargrove has shown consistent support and refused to blow his top, even on several occasions when it was warranted.

The result is a clubhouse low on factions and finger-pointing, and while it isn't making a difference in the record this season, it's the right way to run the team.

A rare step in the right direction amid the debris of a third straight losing season.

"When things are going good, everyone is happy, but when things are going bad, that's when you find out who's in your corner," Clark said. "I can easily count four times this year when we've had very tough losses and it would have been easy to be mad, but Mike came in and said, `Hey, we battled the whole game and came out on the wrong end. If you keep giving that same effort, we'll come out on the right end a lot.' That's when you know he's in your corner."

Earl Weaver would have hollered until he was hoarse, and you can't argue with his results, but he managed in a different era and that style wouldn't work today, in the era of the $13 million outfielder.

Hargrove might not manage with Weaver's in-game daring and verve, but he led the Indians to five division titles and two AL pennants in the '90s, and he knows how to push the right buttons with today's players.

"If you're going to scream and holler and carry on like a madman, it needs to be the right time," Hargrove said. "You can only take one or two shots a year for it to have the effect you want."

Hargrove has already used at least one of his shots, and he certainly hasn't softballed the players through their many losses.

"I get as frustrated as anyone, and there have been a few specific instances when I could have strangled a player," he said without elaborating. "But most of the unsuccessful people I've seen in this business come in and try to change a club to the way they manage. And this is a veteran club that goes out and plays hard. Three or four times we've talked instead of screamed and yelled, and the results [in the next days] have almost always been good."

Miller, a top pitching coach, simply was unable to bite his tongue, aiming criticism and blame at his players in the wake of tough losses -- and losing their support and respect in the process. That made digging out of the hole close to impossible.

"There are things [being] done that are different from the way they've been done in the past," Hargrove said. "Subtle things, nothing overt. Being ready to play, doing the extra work we ask them to do. Little things."

In Miller's defense, he was managing a loser in the last year of a two-year deal in '99, and Hargrove is in the first year of a three-year contract. With his job not on the line, he is bound to be more patient.

Still, the difference between the two runs a lot deeper than their contract terms.

"Mike brings a lot to the table with his record of success in Cleveland," catcher Charles Johnson said. "He commanded respect with that from the minute he walked through the door here. And now, seeing the way he has handled the team, with a lot of guts and character, the respect is even greater.

"It's like the old saying, `Still waters run deep.' Mike is a veteran manager and he knows when to be aggressive with us and when to back off. I'm impressed."

Added Clark: "Things are being handled this year more like they were handled 10 or 12 years ago. When the manager has to talk to someone, he does it when no one is looking and no one else even knows they're talking. If he has something to say, it's between him and the player and no one else. He gets a lot of respect that way."

Not that Hargrove is taking any bows with his club 11 games under .500 and stuck in fourth place.

"I'm obviously dissatisfied with the record," he said. "And we've been our own worst enemy far too often."

But beneath all that, the Orioles are running more smoothly. In a season on the verge of being lost, at least one positive has been found.

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