AFTER an undisputed 2 1/2-year reign as baseball's most expensive failure, the Orioles have finally taken some uncharacteristically bold action and effectuated a remarkable roster makeover. While some of the moves may have been weighted too heavily toward salary reduction, the infusion of youth and the number of new faces have, at long last, brightened the team's future and given its faithful fan base reason for hope.
However, the opportunity will be lost if the organization does not also change its dysfunctional management style, which is in need of becoming acquainted with the career of Gen. George S. Patton.
I do not mean to suggest that baseball today is like war, even though a full frontal assault with all available personnel seems to be the preferred response to any pitcher who dares to use the inside part of the plate. Rather, there are important leadership lessons to be learned from "Old Blood and Guts" that appear to be unappreciated inside the Camden Yards warehouse; namely, that exceptional talent must not be wasted, and personal pique should be subservient to the good of the team.
It is well-known that the World War II general was regarded by his admirers as straight talking, colorful and charismatic, and by his detractors as flamboyant, reckless and out of control. Wherever the truth may lie, he was clearly a handful for the Allied command that had to walk the finest of lines to avoid stepping on numerous easily offended toes. Nevertheless, it is beyond debate that Patton was a magnificent field commander, and they had no choice but to use him at every opportunity, even while, for political reasons, playing down his role.
And use him they did - to revive the beleaguered campaign in North Africa; to spearhead the battle for Sicily; and, even after the infamous "slapping incident," to command the breathtaking march of the Third Army. Regardless if some considered Patton to be a pompous loose cannon, the Allied leadership recognized that he was indispensable to their success.
This is precisely what seems to be lost on the Orioles. In addition to plain bad decisions, they have an uncanny knack for seeming to base important personnel moves on personal trivialities rather than the larger best interests of the team and its fans. Here are a few examples:
Davey Johnson: Possessing an exceptional winning percentage and universally acknowledged dugout skills, he managed the team for two years and went to the playoffs both times, the only post-season appearances and division championship for the once-storied franchise in the past 18 years. But his Patton-like propensities to be confrontational and relish the exercise of power caused him to be sent packing irrespective of his managerial abilities. The team has not seen a .500 season, let alone the playoffs, since.
Pat Gillick: Regarded as the consummate general manager with an enviable track record, he had his vision for building a younger team overruled by the ownership during the 1996 season. Meanwhile, the Orioles have no general manager at all, having adopted a committee system.
Frank Wren: He is a talented young executive who made the mistake of presuming that the general manager is supposed to run the team. His corresponding actions put him on a collision course with the hierarchy, and they wasted no time sacking him, leaving him to be quickly hired by Atlanta, perhaps the game's most astute organization.
John Miller: A tangible part of the hometown team is the voice that graces our airwaves with descriptions of the action. The finest play-by-play announcer of his generation, and our radio companion of 14 years, he is gone as a result of a dispute.
Charles Johnson: The team's youngest, and perhaps most gifted, everyday player, he provided stability at the game's most demanding and difficult to fill position.
This is no way to win a war or a pennant. Retaining and properly using talent is essential to any successful enterprise. Effective leadership demands an ability to deal with and extract the best efforts from diverse and sometimes conflicting personalities.
Indeed, a leader must have the capability to fully tap the energy that comes from a combustible mix of strong wills and direct it to productive ends. Leadership fails if the abilities of a gifted but difficult soldier go unused. A leader must not reject contentious greatness for the sake of tranquil mediocrity. The challenge lies in harnessing the talent while minimizing the volatility.
And that is true whether the task at hand is to go through the Ardennes Forest or the American League.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a partner with the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler. He is an alumnus of Leadership-Baltimore County and former chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Leadership Conference.