O's steer clear of assumptions in process

November 08, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The early days of the Orioles' search for a new manager were littered with assumptions.

Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was the first to interview and quickly identified as a front-runner. Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo, already considered the manager-in-waiting when Mike Hargrove was fired on Sept. 29, was the next to step to the plate.

Owner Peter Angelos was believed to favor Murray ... or Rick Dempsey, who batted cleanup in the interview process ... or even Jim Palmer, who was never interviewed.

None of those assumptions turned out to be substantial enough to prevent the club from going in an entirely different direction. Every one of the first four candidates interviewed was a current or former Oriole who supposedly was favored because he was a student of the Oriole Way. Another assumption.

The guy who got the job - New York Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli - was the seventh candidate to sit before an Orioles search committee that included baseball operations vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, director of baseball administration Ed Kenney, minor league director Doc Rodgers, scouting director Tony DeMacio and baseball operations executive Dave Ritterpusch.

Mazzilli walked into the four-hour interview a long shot and - as they say on Broadway - he came out a star.

"We think we have a leader," Beattie said. "We feel this club will be fun to watch. Our goal is not just to improve. It is to win."

The surprising outcome quickly spawned a whole new set of suppositions, based on old assumptions about the heavy-handed role Angelos plays in the operation of the team: Did Flanagan and Beattie really want to hire Murray or Perlozzo, but were overruled by a meddling owner who has some unexplained personal affinity for the former Yankees first base coach? That theory took a beating when Mazzilli insisted at the news conference that he was still waiting to meet Angelos.

The most likely scenario is the process that the Orioles embarked upon soon after the end of the regular season was a legitimate talent search in which everyone interviewed had a real opportunity to win the job.

It should not have been surprising that Murray was viewed as one of the leading candidates. He is one of the heroes of the Orioles' golden era, and he had laid the groundwork for his candidacy with some complimentary remarks about the Angelos family during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., in July.

He was the first to be invited to Baltimore for an interview, and the process, which included a post-interview news conference, appeared to be tailored specifically to eliminate doubts about his ability to handle the obligatory duties of a major league manager - specifically, dealing with a local media he had shunned for part of his playing career.

Murray also is a friend and former teammate of Flanagan, which further fueled the notion that he had the inside track.

Attempts to reach Murray for comment through his agent were unsuccessful.

"We didn't really know whether to go in alphabetical order or by height," Flanagan said. "It's just how it developed. We had to do some things within our own schedules and we were trying to accommodate the candidates.

"We opened up the process, when generally these things aren't as open, so you deal with the interpretation of the timing and other things like that. We tried not to get caught up in the timing, the order or the length of the interview. In the end, we were just trying to get it done in the best manner and do what was best for them."

Mazzilli was on the original rough list of about 25 candidates, but his interview may have seemed like an afterthought because he was not available to visit until after the Yankees lost to the Florida Marlins in the World Series. He moved right to the top of the list after he "wowed" the search committee with an impressive performance during the lengthy interview session at the B&O warehouse last week.

Beattie and Flanagan had a difficult time explaining exactly what separated Mazzilli from the other candidates, but they said the interview turned decidedly in Mazzilli's favor during a question-and-answer session about the Orioles' performance this season.

"There was one thing we asked," Beattie said. "There was a concern we had with this year's club. Even before we asked the question, Lee had the answer."

Beattie and Flanagan refused to elaborate on the subject that produced the high-water mark in the interview process, but Mazzilli may have revealed it when he talked later about a point in August when the Orioles won an exciting four-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, only to lose their next three games to the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"You have to watch that," Mazzilli said. "You don't want to play down to the competition."

Mazzilli also pointed to the tendency for an undermanned team to focus on playing .500, as the Orioles did before their historic 4-32 collapse in 2002.

"If you set that as a goal, once you reach .500, then you're complacent," he said. "In this game, there is no place for that."

Tough talk.

He'll have to back it up with a new, winning attitude in the Orioles clubhouse, but Mazzilli obviously said all the right things and convinced Beattie and Flanagan that he had the "fire" they were looking for when they decided to replace Hargrove.

Of course, the true test will come when Mazzilli and the Orioles suit up for the 2004 season.

"That's the scary thing about the whole process," Beattie said. "You don't want to get blown away by a great interview, because that's not what you're hiring them to do."

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