Mazzilli about to sail into uncharted waters

Only on-job experience can earn manager stripes

November 16, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Lee Mazzilli is a rookie again. The new Orioles manager has done a lot of things that will prepare him for the challenge of re-creating a winning tradition in Baltimore, but he has never run a major league team and he isn't going to know exactly what that is about until he pulls on an Orioles uniform for the first time next spring.

"No matter how much you think you're prepared for it," said former Texas Rangers manager Jerry Narron, "you're going to realize that it's a lot harder than you thought it would be."

Mazzilli should have an idea. He managed three years in the New York Yankees' minor league system. He has coached the past four years under Yankees manager Joe Torre in what might be the most difficult environment in baseball. He also played 14 years in the major leagues.

There probably isn't much he has not encountered over the 30 years since he arrived in professional baseball, but - well - you haven't really done it until you've really done it.

"He comes from a good place," said former Rangers and California Angels manager Doug Rader. "He should know what it takes to win."

Of course, major league managerial experience wasn't a big issue in the Orioles' search. The only candidates who had managed at the major league level were recently fired Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little and former Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona.

The remaining candidates all were major league coaches with varying amounts of lower-level minor league experience.

Orioles executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan stressed they were looking for someone who would "grow" with their young team, finally choosing Mazzilli from a short list of finalists that also included Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, Kansas City Royals coach Rich Dauer, Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo and Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey.

In essence, the Orioles' front office was treating inexperience at the major league level as a strength, though many of today's successful managers have failed in some previous major league managerial incarnation.

The most obvious example is Torre, who enjoyed only marginal success managing the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, but emerged as the perfect fit for the most successful team of the past 40 years.

Braves manager Bobby Cox has run up a string of 12 straight postseason appearances, but he didn't finish higher than fourth in his first six seasons as a major league manager.

Everybody has to start somewhere, and most first-year managers start out with teams that aren't pennant contenders.

Mazzilli takes over an Orioles team that has registered six consecutive losing seasons, but a team with money to spend in the offseason and several young players who appear to be on the rise.

He probably won't have to deal with inflated expectations, at least not during his first season in Baltimore. He probably will have to figure out for himself where he fits into an unusual management power structure that features two seemingly equal baseball operations executives and a strong-willed owner.

"I was awfully naive," said Rader. "I was misled as to the talent and as to how the [Texas] organization ran. I just took everybody's word for everything. Hopefully, Lee is a little more astute than that. He needs to evaluate on his own and find people he can trust during the transition."

Of course, every new manager and every situation is different. Little inherited a solid, well-heeled team when he took over the Red Sox in 2002. He won 93 games in his first season and reached the seventh game of the American League Championship Series this year before a controversial pitching decision led to his dismissal.

But he insisted during the Orioles' interview process that he had learned a lot during that first year that made him even more effective in 2003.

"I felt that in the second year I was a better manager than the first," Little said. "I feel the same way about the opportunity to manage again. I feel like I'll be a better manager the second time around, also."

Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who won the World Series in 2002 in his third season after replacing Terry Collins, said it might just be a matter of getting comfortable in the job, which isn't going to happen in one year. Chalk that up to experience or confidence, but it probably is not a coincidence.

"What I noticed, the whole decision-making process got easier," Scioscia said. "You make decisions and sometimes you're right and sometimes you're not, but it's much more clear now than it was that first year. ... It goes more smoothly, especially the interaction with your staff. It's not just about the players."

Narron, who was a member of Little's staff in Boston, got his first opportunity to manage on short notice. He had been the right-hand man to Johnny Oates in Baltimore and went with him to Texas, taking over as manager when Oates resigned abruptly early in the 2001 season.

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