October 01, 2003

AS A MAJOR league baseball player for 12 years, Mike Hargrove would so deliberately prepare himself before stepping into the batter's box for every pitch that he became known as "the Human Rain Delay." That studied approach twice enabled him to lead the American League in walks. And it would seem to be good preparation for the vagaries of life as big-league manager.

These days, baseball managers come and go in what seems a desperate exercise in musical chairs - one that really gets going this time of year with the onset of post-season play. Managers get fired for losing; for winning but not winning it all; for not getting along with high-priced stars or not being able to work with young players, or both; for being too tough or too nice. Mostly they seem to get fired to proclaim a new era.

Mike Hargrove, known with true affection throughout baseball as "Grover," managed the Cleveland Indians to five straight division titles and two World Series appearances from 1995 through 1999; he got fired for not taking a very talented team further. Then he presided over the Baltimore Orioles through four straight ugly seasons, a combined 275-372 record, and so Monday he got canned - with the label: He's too nice.

The move was telegraphed by the O's management, and it may have been a done deal by mid-August when the team had just taken three of four from Boston, had risen within two games of a .500 record, and then got swept by lowly Tampa Bay - which the low-key Mr. Hargrove was accused of taking much too calmly. In any case, as a baseball man, he knew that he was almost bound to take the fall for the O's dismal performance the last couple of years. It's hard not to imagine him soon managing another club - probably one with better prospects.

Truth is, Mr. Hargrove has been the least of the Orioles' troubles, which brings us to the issue that endures beyond his firing: Years of meddling ownership, a front office that too often shot itself in the foot, and a deteriorated farm system all combined to produce this bad patch in the O's proud history.

So now the club offers new leadership, some promising everyday players from its minor leagues, and talk of throwing around big money for a big free agent or two. If the team reverses its recent course, it likely will not be because of any magic or harder edge brought by Mr. Hargrove's successor, but because the Orioles have relearned how to put a successful franchise on the field.

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