For Hargrove, '03 to be year of judgment days

March 25, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - With Opening Day just around the corner, maybe Mike Hargrove figured it was time to fire things up in the Orioles' camp. When a balk called against pitcher Rick Helling on Sunday resulted in a run for Montreal, Hargrove stomped out of the dugout to go chin-to-chin with the ump.

Minutes later, when third baseman Tony Batista botched a tag on a throw from catcher Geronimo Gil, also allowing a run, Hargrove flung his cup of water to the dirt in front of the bench and stomped into the clubhouse, disgusted.

The Orioles' manager says the talent-challenged team will have to "cross its t's and dot its i's" to be competitive this season, so Hargrove looked to be taking on the aura of a manager who can't cut his team too much slack. With a new beginning at hand, errors and boneheaded plays and, yes, losses, will haunt the Orioles - and Hargrove.

Yes, despite the lack of serious upgrades, Hargrove will be judged by results.

With Hargrove's contract expiring after the season, is he in a no-win situation? For a manager who posted a .550 winning percentage in eight seasons in Cleveland yet has won just 204 times in 485 games in Baltimore - including that 4-32 slide last September that plummeted the Orioles from .500 to oblivion - it would appear to be a no-win situation.

Hargrove said no.

"You are what you are," he said. "You do what you can do. You can `what-if' yourself to death. ... This is still a good job. It's fun. The people in this clubhouse and on this team make coming in here extremely worthwhile. Is the talent level where we want it to be? No. But it's still a rewarding job."

It's interesting to report that neither of the Orioles' vice presidents, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, says it's going to be a big issue that Hargrove is in the final year of his contract.

After all, the entire Orioles organization is up for review this season under Flanagan and Beattie. The tandem has been on the job only four months. Not only do the two see no urgency in addressing Hargrove's status, but an argument also could be made that it would be imprudent.

The hiring of a manager - even if it's via contract extension to the one already in place - isn't something to rush into. So Beattie and Flanagan intend to wait and see, talk and listen. So far, so good.

"I've been impressed with Mike on a lot of things," Beattie said. "He's forthright. He voices his concerns to players, presents things that he thinks should be addressed. He doesn't want to be the players' friend. He'll make the call [on who starts]. He addresses things that need to be addressed," Beattie said.

Flanagan said he likes the idea that Hargrove managed a young, rebuilding team in Cleveland and also handled the star-studded Cleveland squads Hargrove took to the 1995 and '97 World Series.

Still, it's wait and see. For the entire season.

"We want to see him under a lot of different scenarios and see how well we work together. I don't see it as a big deal," Beattie said.

Then again, it's Hargrove, not Beattie and Flanagan, who sits on the hot seat, no guarantee beyond Sept. 28.

"Obviously, when you're in the last year of your contract, there's always a little bit of angst," Hargrove said.

Hargrove, 53, has been in Baltimore for three of the team's past five sub-.500 seasons. He has suffered through salary dumps, utter dysfunction and lack of communication within the organization and been dealt crucial player injuries and an overall dearth of talent.

With the new regime in place, Hargrove is encouraged. If there's a person happier over the departure of Syd Thrift than Hargrove, that would be an exceedingly giddy person. Not that this measured Texan will talk about how hamstrung, how out of the loop most of those in the organization were the past three years.

Still, he wants to stay in Baltimore and "see this thing though." He has a bottom line on a timetable for determining his future. Asked if he expects something to be done before the end of the season, Hargrove offered this:

"Sparky Anderson once told me that 50 games is a good barometer for a team; that after 50 games, you pretty much know what you've got."

If he thinks Beattie and Flanagan will deal with an extension after 50 games, that may prove unrealistic. The Orioles play nearly every one of their first 44 games against teams that finished below .500 last season.

There's an expectation the team should make hay during that stretch, come out at or a little above .500. They'll need the cushion once the Angels, Twins, Mets and Yankees come to town.

If 50 games go by and no deal, Hargrove said he'll internally mark other points along the way. But if it goes to the end of September, well, he shook his head.

"The people in charge of this organization are very competent people. They really are. It's not anything I'm going to approach them about," he said, adding: "The longer this goes on, the more it will be talked about, and that's not comfortable for anybody."

In a season in which everything and everyone is under scrutiny, comfort may not be a high priority.

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