The road to recovery

Hoping the detours are behind them, the Orioles have mapped out a plan for the future. Warning: construction ahead

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March 30, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

In five years, the Orioles have gone from one of the premier franchises in Major League Baseball to a perennial loser.

Their failures have become an annual rite of summer in Baltimore.

Their once-proud minor league system has become a laughingstock.

Their tried and true fans have grown increasingly jaded.

With another season set to start tomorrow, Monday, the Orioles are no longer kidding themselves. Hardly anyone has serious playoff aspirations. After a 67-95 record last year, there is no talk of striving for .500 this time or just winning 10 more games.

As the Orioles enter their 50th season in Baltimore, it goes much deeper than that.

This franchise needs serious help. By the end of September, that was clear, even to owner Peter Angelos. Now, it's as if the Orioles have entered into their own recovery program, which goes something like this:

Step 1: Admit you have a problem.

Actions: Firing Syd Thrift. Hiring Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.

Angelos, loyal to a fault, stuck with Thrift as long as he could. Thrift was with the Orioles for eight years, serving the final three as vice president for of baseball

[Orioles, from Page 1s] operations. He made some good acquisitions - landing Jay Gibbons, Jorge Julio and Rodrigo Lopez - but by late last season, people around Thrift were practically screaming for change.

The Orioles finished the year with a 4-32 collapse, tarnishing the gains they had made by playing .500 ball for the season's first five months. It was their fifth consecutive losing season and fifth consecutive fourth-place finish.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, speaking for a silent majority in and around the organization, said the franchise was "in disarray." The top three minor league affiliates finished a combined 109 games under .500. Clearly fed up, Triple-A Rochester severed its 42-year affiliation with the organization, meaning the new Oriole Way would include a detour through Ottawa.

Angelos went through an exhaustive search to find Thrift's replacement and wound up picking two former major league pitchers to share the job, the right-handed Beattie and the left-handed Mike Flanagan.

Beattie had spent six years as the Seattle Mariners' farm director and six years as the Montreal Expos' general manager before coming to Baltimore.

Flanagan had spent 25 years with the Orioles as a pitcher, coach, instructor and broadcaster, working behind the scenes with Angelos in recent years as a consultant.

Step 2: Make a total self-assessment.

Actions: Hire a new farm director, keep the scouting director and review the others, including manager Mike Hargrove.

When Beattie and Flanagan finally took office Dec. 4, they were dropped right into the busiest season for baseball general managers. They had little more than a week to prepare for the winter meetings, and they were right in the middle of free agency. From the beginning, they were playing from behind.

With a new regime, there's always change, but Flanagan promised it would be more of an evolution than a revolution. They reassigned farm director Don Buford, making him the field manager at Rookie-level Bluefield, and replaced him with Doc Rodgers, the former Cincinnati Reds assistant general manager.

"Strengthening the minor leagues is one of the first things we have to do," Flanagan said. "We need to spit out prospects from within. You can't be looking at free agency to solve all your problems. By developing your own players, you have a cohesive unit when they come up together, and that's how things worked here in the past."

Flanagan and Beattie decided the farm system's deficiencies had more to do with development than scouting, so they retained scouting director Tony DeMacio, giving him at least one more draft to restock the shelves.

They also revamped the minor league field staffs, and five of the Orioles' seven minor league affiliates will have new managers this year. Because Beattie and Flanagan were given such a short window to make change, this assessment will continue through the season.

"This is a year of evaluation for all of us," Flanagan said. "We'll evaluate the minor leagues, evaluate scouting, evaluate all of the departments, and somewhere in late August or September, we'll decide which way we're going to go."

This includes Hargrove, who enters his fourth season in Baltimore in the final year of his contract. Apparently, he still has to earn his next contract extension, leaving speculation that he would be dismissed with another slow start.

"It's not like there's any large magnifying glass on him," Flanagan said, "but we have him for this year, and we'll deal with that at the appropriate time. I think he's pretty comfortable with that, and it's a two-way street. It's a very important relationship, the manager with the front office."

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