Where do the Orioles go from here? Firing manager Mike Hargrove yesterday is the perceived first step in changing the direction of a franchise that keeps slamming into fourth place. Now comes the hard part: finding a replacement.
They may not have far to look, unless they decide to rummage through their past.
Club sources have indicated that bench coach Sam Perlozzo and former Oriole Eddie Murray, the Cleveland Indians' hitting coach, are leading candidates to run the team in 2004.
Though Murray has no managerial experience beyond one stint in the Arizona Fall League, he'll apparently be a finalist for the job. The Orioles are expected to consider no fewer than 10 candidates, but may trim that list to four or five, including Perlozzo and Murray, before conducting interviews.
Perlozzo, 52, came close to being hired by the Seattle Mariners after last season before losing out to Bob Melvin. He would attract more attention from other teams this fall if the Orioles don't promote him.
Perlozzo has been an Orioles coach for eight seasons, the past three on the bench with Hargrove, who endorsed him yesterday by saying, "I think Sammy would be perfect for that job."
A major league coach for 17 years, Perlozzo compiled a 364-263 record in five minor league seasons. His teams finished in first place three straight seasons, and Baseball America named him minor league Manager of the Year in 1984 after Jackson won the Double-A Texas League title.
Besides going 4-8 this year while Hargrove tended to his ailing mother, Perlozzo hasn't managed since 1986 with Triple-A Tidewater. He moved up to the New York Mets in 1987 as third base coach, and held the same position with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 when they won the World Series.
An organization obsessed with returning to the Oriole Way also is drawn to Murray, who spent 12 1/2 of his 21 playing seasons with the team and celebrated the city's last World Series in 1983.
The Indians hired Murray, 47, after he served as an Orioles coach for four seasons. His resume as a player is flawless - he joined Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only members of the 500-homer, 3,000-hit club - and a thin managerial background might be overlooked by an organization seeking many of the qualities that Hall of Famer Earl Weaver once brought to the team.
Hargrove was viewed as a manager who commanded respect throughout the clubhouse but might not have pushed his players hard enough. Some team officials perceive Murray as more closely resembling the feisty Weaver, though he had a laid-back personality as a player.
Murray and vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan both played for Weaver, and their bond is unmistakable.
Without addressing anyone in particular, executive vice president Jim Beattie said: "First and foremost, you look for knowledge of the game. You look for communication with players, and in this day, with fans and the media. You look for character and you look for toughness."
Murray's sour relationship with the media didn't affect him as a player or prevent him from being inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer in his first year of eligibility, but it could bring challenges as a manager. It also could be a deciding factor if the choice comes down to him or Perlozzo.
Though Murray hasn't paid his dues as other candidates have, he's one of the most popular Orioles in franchise history, and commissioner Bud Selig likely will push for a minority hire.
Hargrove won five division titles and went to two World Series with the Indians, coming within a Jose Mesa blown save of winning it all in 1997. Named as Ray Miller's replacement on Nov. 3, 1999, he instantly brought credibility to an organization needing direction. He had a track record and the respect of his peers, but none of that mattered in a division where the standings seem to be predetermined each spring.
He couldn't transform the Orioles into winners, so it's somebody else's turn. And if the new hire fails, especially with a roster that's expected to be upgraded this winter, Hargrove will be vindicated.
Beattie and Flanagan must decide whether they want to give the keys to a rookie driver or go with a more experienced hand. Should they offer someone a first chance or do a little recycling? Of all the decisions they'll make before Opening Day, none will be more important.
The following is a capsule look at some other candidates:
* Gary Allenson, manager, Triple-A Ottawa