With an `A' on O's quiz, New Yorker makes grade

November 08, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

THE DOOR TO Lee Mazzilli's major league managing career opened back on Aug. 8 at Fenway Park. Not that anyone realized it at the time.

The Orioles had opened a four-game weekend series against the Boston Red Sox, promptly taking both ends of a doubleheader and winning three of four.

It was a tremendous lift for the Orioles, who featured so many young players attempting to prove they could beat their toughest American League East rivals. It was an apparent boon to manager Mike Hargrove, who was in the final weeks of his contract and who, like everyone else within the organization, was under scrutiny in this "season of evaluation."

But then the Orioles went to Tampa Bay, where they meekly lost three straight to the Devil Rays. It was a turning point, for Hargrove and the Orioles. The team went on to notch an eight-game skid, all but sinking the Orioles' chances of finishing at .500. Hargrove was sunk, too.

A change was needed, that much was certain for vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan and others within the organization. It was time to find a field general who was less philosophical in nature and approach; someone who would prod the club, put a charge into it.

No one knows what Lee Mazzilli is going to become as the newest manager in the major leagues. What matters, at least to the Orioles, is what Mazzilli is right now.

He is a fresh face, a breath of fresh air. He is confident, but not one to blow his own horn. He is a risk, but no more so than anyone else who was interviewed, none of whom had the kind of answers and energy that made it unanimous among the Orioles to pick Mazzilli. He represents the antidote to all that went on before.

Besides, Mazzilli had the answer that the Orioles were looking for when it came to addressing that particular question about that specific point at which last season fell apart: What would you have done during that critical stretch in August, after the wins at Fenway and a tour through the rest of the AL East on tap?

"You come off a good streak ... have a setup or a meeting where you've got to remind [the team]: `Listen, we just came off a good streak right there. Let's not think we can walk through this thing. That's not the way it is. Any player who has the ball, any player with a bat in his hand is dangerous. Any team can win on any given day,' " Mazzilli recalled last night.

It was an approach to a specific situation that seemed to seal the deal between the Orioles and Mazzilli, who said the danger for a team is to play up or down to the level of the competition; that losing three in Tampa and the snowballing losses afterward effectively made the difference between losing 91 games instead of finishing closer to .500.

Mazzilli said he would not wait to see if there was going to be a letdown.

"You can have a very, very low-keyed meeting. Bring guys together. Say, `Hey guys, we just came off a hot streak. Just remember to play hard and run the way you run and see you tomorrow.' You make it real quick. Get to the point. It doesn't matter if it's a young club. Joe's [Torre] done that with the Yankees, a veteran club."

There's a certain heaviness that comes with losing. There's not a sports franchise in the world that hasn't radiated that kind of suffocating aura, although baseball fans in Baltimore these past few years might believe they bore an unfair amount of weight.

"It's tiring. It wears you out," Beattie said yesterday.

"It's like when Mike and I came in last year. We brought different energy. Sometimes, you have to reinvent yourself," he said.

Well, consider the Orioles reinvented. It should also feel a little lighter around town today. The Orioles made a fairly bold decision to tap Mazzilli as their 15th manager. Any reservations about whether the Brooklyn-born, New York Mets-drafted and New York Yankees-polished Mazzilli is a good fit were fairly quickly diminished.

It doesn't hurt when the new guy starts off with a joke about his 10-year contract, which it's not. Mazzilli is getting a nice two-year window to showcase his personality and style. It adds some flavor to the proceedings when the new manager all but drools about dining opportunities in Little Italy.

Welcome to Baltimore, Lee. There's plenty of good marinara down by the harbor.

Mazzilli looked appropriately honored and humbled, especially knowing who had also come to interview. There were Eddie Murray, Sam Perlozzo and Rick Dempsey - all of whom had constituencies that wanted to see these Orioles favorites get a shot. There had been confirmation from inside the warehouse that Orioles' roots were not exactly a bad thing.

But in the end, Beattie and Flanagan opted for real change - with a total refutation that owner Peter Angelos did anything about this hiring process except give his blessing to those in charge of baseball operations.

"In the change, the change has to have impact. You have to make sure it has an impact on the players," said Beattie, signaling that a new attitude will be paramount at the major league level, as it has been in the minor leagues.

That Mazzilli is a fresh face does not guarantee he'll be the next Tony Pena, who has sparked the Kansas City Royals, or the next Mike Scioscia, who did a marvelous job leading the Angels to the 2002 World Series title, making the Dodgers look silly for letting Scioscia get away.

Maybe Mazzilli's hire will turn out the same way. Now wouldn't that be the Orioles' ultimate revenge on the Yankees? Mazzilli already said he wants to beat them.

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