O's hope new rules add sock to minors

Baseball: Farm director Doc Rodgers has brought discipline and communication to a moribund system, with the new Orioles brass adding a `we, not me' theme.


April 02, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

SARASOTA, Fla. - If there is change afoot in the Orioles' minor league system, it is symbolized in, of all things, the six inches of black socks every player must show this season.

Darrell "Doc" Rodgers, the club's new director of minor league operations, told the players to show at least four inches on the first day of minor league spring training workouts at Twin Lakes Park last month. Baseball fashion has moved toward a baggy, pajama-style look with no socks showing in recent years, and Rodgers, a self-described traditionalist, thought high socks would underline his old-school principles.

When several of the more than 150 players in camp - destined to man the Orioles' seven affiliates - failed to adhere to the rule on the first day, Rodgers brought a ruler to a meeting the next day.

"We didn't seem to understand four [inches], so it's six today," he said. "And if you don't get six, we'll make it eight tomorrow."

Few players have tested the rule through the rest of the monthlong camp, which closes this week as the players scatter for the start of the minor league season.

The tactic illustrates the change Rodgers is attempting to bring to a system that has failed to produce many winning seasons or major league players in recent years, earning a reputation as one of the game's worst.

A turnaround is essential to rebuilding the Orioles, and Rodgers, hired in November, has installed new managers at five of the seven affiliates and emphasized discipline, communication and unanimity.

"There's new blood and a new attitude," said Jack Voigt, the former Oriole who managed Single-A Frederick last season and is working this year as a roving instructor overseeing outfield play and base running.

Hitters are being taught to be more selective. Pitchers are being monitored more closely. Organizational self-respect and cooperation are being stressed in an attempt to strengthen three relationships: between management and the players, most of whom are in their early 20s; among the different affiliates in the system; and between the minors and majors.

Whether the changes will help the system produce better major league players than it did under Don Buford, remains to be seen. Many industry scouts remain skeptical of the talent on hand, especially at the higher classifications. Several top pitching prospects are injured. And as the old saying goes, everything always looks rosy in the spring.

"Everyone's got their own ideas of how to do things. Doc's are different than Buford's were. I'm not going to say one is better than the other. I'm not going to get into that," said Andy Etchebarren, who managed at Triple-A Rochester last season and will work as a roving catching instructor this year. "But I don't see a big difference in the on-field stuff. We're covering the same things we covered before. Baseball is baseball."

Few will deny that it was time for an overhaul after last season, when the seven affiliates finished a combined 102 games under .500 and Rochester severed ties with the Orioles after 42 years. Factionalism had developed in the Orioles' front office under Syd Thrift, who was ousted as vice president of baseball operations and replaced by Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie.

"When there is dysfunction, there start to be cliques," Rodgers said. "When I was interviewed for the job, Mike Flanagan said: `Our first job is to pull the organization back together.' It should be: `We are the Orioles, all of us, scouting, player development, major league, accounting, whatever. We are the Orioles.' That's been his overriding theme: `To start with, let's get back together as an organization.' "

Discipline just first step

Rodgers, 40, who was an assistant general manager with the Reds before coming to the Orioles, said a stronger sense of discipline was the necessary first step. The Twin Lakes camp has been his platform for establishing his standards. Besides showing six inches of socks, the players have had to follow other rules, such as stuffing their batting gloves entirely into their back pockets and not wearing caps in the cafeteria.

"Good manners, respect the uniform, they're being strict about a lot of things," said shortstop Brandon Fahey, who hit .281 at Single-A Aberdeen last year. "I think it's good. It keeps everyone together, makes it so there are no individuals. We had a four-inch [socks] rule last year, and people were taking advantage of it. A guy who does that thinks he can get away with anything. It isn't happening this year."

Veteran minor league pitching instructor Dave Schmidt said: "If I had to point to one change, it's that from top to bottom in the organization, we don't let things go. We don't start off saying, `OK, these are the things we're really going to follow,' and slack off as it goes along. That ain't going to happen this year, I'm telling you."

Another bow to discipline has been the strict enforcement of nightly curfews. Players must be in their rooms at the team motel by 11 p.m., with lights out at midnight.

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