For Perlozzo, sting eased by a buddy's good fortune

February 26, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He was the first coach out of the clubhouse after the Orioles' new manager, Lee Mazzilli, made the ritual first address to the team.

Sam Perlozzo jogged to the pitcher's mound at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday and stood there all alone under a cloudy South Florida sky. He dropped a bag of balls near the rubber and quickly looked around.

Mazzilli was the New York Yankees coach who swooped into the warehouse and wowed Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. Yesterday, Mazzilli felt the full effect of his good fortune.

"Every time I walk onto the field, I say, `It's your team. It's your move,' " Mazzilli said. "Every time I walk on the field, I feel good."

Out on the mound, what was Perlozzo thinking?

Maybe something like: This is not my team, no matter how much I believed it could have been. I am not the new manager of the Orioles.

This is Perlozzo's 31st year in baseball, his 18th as a major league coach, something for which he says he is truly thankful. He won three minor league championships for the Mets in the 1980s. He has coached with such World Series managers as Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and Mike Hargrove.

He says to himself: Hey, for a guy out of Cumberland, Md., to think the game has been his work and passion this long, this is a lucky thing.

"The other day, we had enough coaches to handle the drills, so I just found myself standing there thinking, `I'm watching Larry Bigbie hit fungoes. This is what I do for a living. How many people would like to be in my shoes?' " Perlozzo said.

Even this eternal optimist might have to confess that this spring, feeling blessed comes with a twinge of something else. Not regret or anger or resentment or defeat, but maybe a momentary flash of heartache.

That this was not his team, no matter how much he believed it could have been. He was not the new manager of the Orioles.

"I was disappointed maybe because it was right there in my lap," said Perlozzo about being a finalist and losing to Mazzilli.

"I understand everything that goes into the process of searching for a manager. There are a lot of factors. Maybe they wanted to make their own mark. Maybe the timing wasn't right. But it wasn't only going for the job, I just felt it was my best shot. So in that sense, because this is my home club, my hometown, I set myself up for a little more disappointment."

It had to sting even more that Beattie and Flanagan were clearly willing to hire a manager with no previous major league experience. In fact, with Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Perlozzo and Mazzilli reported to be the four finalists, the Orioles seemed to be looking for the "next Tony Pena," the first-time manager who has reinvigorated the Kansas City Royals.

Instead, Mazzilli won the prize while Perlozzo took a few days to work through his feelings. If Perlozzo and Mazzilli had not been such good, longtime friends, the sting might have prompted Perlozzo to look for a new job.

"The first day or so was rough. I said I sure hope he doesn't call me because I don't want to talk to him," Perlozzo said.

"Then my phone rang and I looked at the area code and I thought it was someone else, so I dial the number back and hear a voice I did not expect. I said, `Who is this?' He said, `This is Maz.' I said, `Damn it.'

"But he was good. He said, `You OK?' I said I will be. If it was someone I didn't know who got the job, I don't know if it would be the same situation.

"You know what's funny? I'll tell you what's funny. I managed Maz. For a week. In 1986 [after Mazzilli was sent to the Mets from Pittsburgh], the Mets sent him down to Tidewater. They sent Maz down to me. They were going to release George Foster, but, before they did, Maz came down. He was in my office so much, I told him they should put his name over the door," Perlozzo said.

In a game in Pawtucket, Perlozzo looked at Mazzilli and told him he had to get some at-bats. So he let Mazzilli lead off.

"He hits a homer. I said, `Boy, can I manage,' " Perlozzo said.

Later, there was a message on the scoreboard that the Mets had released Foster. They called to tell Perlozzo that Mazzilli was getting called up.

"Maz saw the message and comes into the dugout. `Am I out of here?' he asks. I said, `Yeah, but can you play two more innings?' "

Perlozzo is laughing hard now. Baseball relationships are like rings on a tree. They keep growing round and round and, luckily, in this case, Perlozzo and Mazzilli enjoy orbiting together.

On the day Perlozzo and some other coaches were about to be fired by the Mets, Perlozzo was on the golf course with Mazzilli. Perlozzo got a phone call from Mets general manager Frank Cashen, summoning him.

"Maz looks at me and says, `Why are you going to leave the golf course to get fired? At least finish the round,' " Perlozzo said.

Whatever disappointment he had, Perlozzo has made peace. The game goes on. There's a place for him. This isn't about pouting, he added.

This season, with the entire Orioles coaching staff asked by Flanagan and Beattie to come back, Mazzilli has none of his "own" people around him. The closest thing he's got is Perlozzo, which is an advantage Perlozzo will use if he finds a pang of jealousy rise up.

"When he asks me my opinion or wants some advice, I'm going to tell him, `That's why you get the big bucks to make those decisions,' " he said.

Of course, he's laughing. The enduring relationships and nature of the game of baseball can't tolerate grudges or hard feelings. Too much to do.

"I don't know if it's a good omen or bad that we keep crossing paths, but as long as we keep showing up in the big leagues together, that's good," Perlozzo said.

Pride and ambitions might have been wounded. Attitude is good.

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