As general manager candidates go, they were three can't-miss prospects, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos probably could have hired them all.
Randy Smith, Kevin Malone and Dan O'Dowd.
Each of them landed high-profile GM jobs, while critics wondered, "How could the Orioles let them get away?"
Each of them joined forces with new owners, who trusted them with their checkbooks, and everyone knew those three had more control than they ever would have had under Angelos.
Then the unexpected happened. Each of them stumbled.
Their spending sprees left three franchises bloated. Smith left Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch choking on his pizzas. With the Los Angeles Dodgers, Malone sent Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch running for the Hollywood Hills, and O'Dowd has Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris staring at contracts that seem a mile high.
In baseball, meddling owners are lightning rods for criticism, but with Angelos about to hire his fourth general manager in less than 10 years, there is room for debate: How much control should a GM expect to have?
Angelos had no comment with regard to how other teams operate, but he addressed how he expects things to work for the Orioles. They have seven candidates to replace vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift, and a decision is expected sometime next week.
Angelos compared a GM - or, in this case, VP of baseball operations - to an architect, who skillfully designs a blueprint for a building while sticking within a builder's budget. Inevitably, Angelos said, a builder will have some effect on the final product by controlling the budget, but the architect still controls the modifications.
"You want the GM to try to put the best team together, using his baseball knowledge and expertise," Angelos said. "Ultimately, the question arises: Can the franchise afford the cost of the players that have been identified and maintain fiscal stability? Ownership has the responsibility to preserve the franchise as an asset, for the investors and the community in which it operates."
In Mike Flanagan, the Orioles have one candidate who already has a long working relationship with Angelos. While working as a pitching coach and broadcaster over the past eight years, Flanagan has been one of the owner's key consultants.
Exploring external candidates this month, Angelos interviewed Detroit Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, former Montreal Expos GM Jim Beattie, Arizona Diamondbacks assistant Sandy Johnson, former Chicago White Sox GM Ron Schueler, Seattle Mariners VP of scouting and player development Roger Jongewaard and Milwaukee Brewers special assignment scout David Wilder.
"The people we're talking to are experienced and understand that ownership has a role to play," Angelos said. "We don't say who should play in the minor leagues, at what level. We don't get into who should be selected in the amateur draft. We don't comment on who should be in the lineup or the pitching rotation. We don't say which players we should be trading or acquiring, et cetera.
"Those matters are not within the purview of our expertise. Those decisions belong to the manager and to the general manager. But when you talk about the expenditure of $60 [million], $70 million or more in a given season, to suggest that's the unilateral decision of an individual who carries the title of general manager is absurd."
This has been a hot-button issue with the Orioles since July 1996, when Angelos overruled then-GM Pat Gillick on two potential deals. Gillick thought the team should move David Wells and Bobby Bonilla in separate deals for Chris Widger and Jeromy Burnitz, but Angelos decided he couldn't do it with the team just five games back in the wild-card chase.
The Orioles came back to win the wild card, then advance to the American League Championship Series before losing to the New York Yankees. Two years later, Gillick resigned. The Orioles had interviewed Smith before hiring Gillick. Smith had become GM of the San Diego Padres at age 29 and took over as the Tigers' GM in November 1995.
In six full seasons with Smith as the GM, the Tigers never had a winning record, and they fired him six games into this past season, along with manager Phil Garner. For the most part, Ilitch maintained a tight budget while Smith was there, but much of the Tigers' money went to waste. Jose Lima (7.77 ERA), Damion Easley (.224 batting average) and Dean Palmer (limited to 61 games in past two seasons because of injuries) combined to make $22 million this year.
Malone was the Orioles' assistant GM under Gillick and he looked like the probable successor until the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him to a four-year, $2 million deal on Sept. 11, 1998. The Sun ran a headline the next day that said, "Malone loss leaves O's bottomed out."