Imagine for a minute that the Orioles didn't hire Mike Hargrove in late 1999 to oversee the painful organizational rebuilding effort that left the club in the midst of an unprecedented sixth consecutive losing season.
Imagine that someone else was hired for the thankless task of dismantling a veteran team and reconstituting it from an underproducing minor league system.
Imagine that the organization was about to fire that manager and replace him with someone who would inherit a team that finally has some promising young players and could be ready to make a major splash in the free-agent market at the end of the season.
The best available candidate for that job might be ... Mike Hargrove.
It isn't hard to imagine because that almost certainly would be the case. Hargrove lived through the same kind of painful transition with the Cleveland Indians and emerged with a club that reached the postseason in each of his last five seasons with the team.
The Indians went from perennial doormat to perennial contender and two-time pennant winner. They developed great minor league talent and then turned it into great major league talent and Hargrove held it all together until somebody decided that five straight division titles and two World Series berths wasn't enough.
If he were unemployed right now, his name would be at the top of the list of candidates to be the next Orioles manager.
There is every indication that he will soon be the former Orioles manager. Club officials have been tight-lipped on the subject, but in this case, their inaction speaks louder than words.
Hargrove's contract is about to expire and the fact that it was not extended long before this gives you a pretty good idea which way the Orioles are leaning as they inch closer to a decision on next year's manager.
Maybe there's still time to reconsider. Hargrove has proven he can win when he has talent. The only thing the Orioles have proven over the past six years is that you can't win without it, no matter who is in the manager's office.
The Orioles' organization was a mess when Hargrove arrived. The front office finally got straightened out with the dismissal of Syd Thrift and the arrival of the new baseball operations team. The club is going to enter the offseason with enough payroll flexibility to make a dramatic turnaround.
Hargrove deserves at least one more year. He deserves to manage one Orioles team with at least enough talent to compete in the wild-card race. He has played the good soldier, never complaining about the bad hands he has been dealt. Give him the chance to draw to a full boat and see what happens.
No doubt, baseball operations execs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan are troubled by the team's 4-32 finish in 2002 and another dramatic late-season decline this year, but they need to recognize that this is a team without a superstar offensive player or a No. 1 starting pitcher.
The Orioles are competing in the same division with two of the strongest, richest teams in baseball, but they would be hard-pressed to come up with more than one position player (Jay Gibbons) who could crack the starting lineup of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox.
That situation has a chance to be rectified this winter. There are several big-name players available in the free-agent market and the Orioles will be committed to less than $20 million in payroll after a couple of dead contracts expire at the end of the season.
What they need are some new players, not a new manager.
Top of the list
The Orioles have made it clear that they don't want the Montreal Expos to move into the region, but they might be willing to make an exception for Expos superstar Vladimir Guerrero.
The 27-year-old outfielder is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and the Orioles are one of the teams with the wherewithal to sign him to a rich, multi-year contract.
Club officials are prohibited by major league rules from expressing interest in players who are under contract to other clubs, but it is common knowledge that Guerrero - with his impressive combination of power, speed and pure hitting ability - is at the top of the Orioles' wish list.
Think about it. The guy has a .323 career batting average and has averaged 36 home runs the past six years, despite a back injury that has limited him to 23 this season. He is one of the best all-around athletes in the game, and he's a solid citizen with all the intangibles to help lead the Orioles back to respectability.
Of course, there is the small matter of convincing him to come to Baltimore, but the Orioles will be one of a limited number of teams with the payroll flexibility to stay in the Guerrero auction right to the end.
Theoretically, they have enough money to sign two or three star-quality players without moving into the upper third of major league payrolls. Guerrero will be coveted by a number of teams, but it seems unlikely that the Orioles will be bidding with "Confederate money" this time.
Upon further review