McLemore's knee injury is painful for Mazzilli, too

March 22, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The stars did not align for Lee Mazzilli on Saturday night after hearing that super utility man Mark McLemore will be out at least four weeks. Mazzilli drove home thinking, thinking.

"It's a big blow," Mazzilli said.

On a team that boasts Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro and is already expected to be 10 games better than 2003, why does the loss of an 18-year veteran throw a major monkey wrench into Mazzilli's mind-set?

"There's a little crack in the armor. With Mac going down, it's very big. It changes the whole roster, what I want to do," Mazzilli said.

By yesterday, no answer had come. McLemore, who suffered a cartilage tear in his right knee, will have surgery. Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston might find themselves on this team together longer than either hopeful starter might prefer, now that all that flexibility is on the shelf.

Add to that a pitching rotation that has yet to take full shape and a bevy of designated hitter candidates who don't supply the same versatility that McLemore did, and one begins to see the many challenges facing Mazzilli in putting together his team.

"I'm not going to carry someone on the club just for the sake of filling a roster spot. I want someone who can help us win," he said.

For the first time all spring, camp felt hectic. It only added to the tension that the Red Sox were in town, making for the hottest Grapefruit League ticket in a long time for an Orioles home game. Plus, yesterday marked the two-week countdown to Opening Night, when Pedro Martinez and Boston come to Camden Yards.

Tick, tock - especially for a rookie big league manager who can no longer afford to feel like the luckiest man in baseball. Winning the Orioles' job was a coup, considering the franchise's willingness to stock the farm, hire free agents and position for a run the next few years. Mazzilli has been handed one of the better jobs in the big leagues, a welcome challenge.

But Mazzilli is fast arriving at crunch time, putting together a roster that he wants, he can use, he can manage, he can win with. And now instead of looking for one last player to fill the roster, Mazzilli sees four spots.

"There are a lot of scenarios. Don't even ask me a question about what they can be," he said.

Mazzilli said he will not let down his guard. Maybe that's the lesson he learned playing and coaching in New York. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you.

He learned from Davey Johnson with the Mets and Joe Torre with the Yankees. Some of the traits are apparent. The way he tells his veteran coaching staff to do what they do, run your part of the club the way you know how. Johnson delegated that way.

The way he is making a point to meet each player individually, learn their personalities, tendencies, what buttons to push. Torre is one of the most respected "players' managers" in the game. Mazzilli makes communication and motivation priorities.

But otherwise, Mazzilli is keeping a low public profile. A stickler for details who expects the fundamentals to be practiced and executed, he's not holding court with the media, he's not yukking it up to win friends and influence public perception.

Mazzilli is working on one major objective: "Find the makeup of the team," he said. "That's a big part of putting a team together."

He's watching what happens on the field. Who does what with the ball, with the bat, with their feet, their eyes and voice.

"But my eye is in here, too," he said, scanning the length of the dugout.

"Guys come in and console a player who made a mistake. How they deliver constructive criticism. Some guys may not like what they're hearing, but it's how it's delivered. How the team is jelling."

The veteran coaching staff he inherited, including several former managers and Orioles managerial candidates, has thrown its support to Mazzilli.

"We all want to win," Elrod Hendricks said.

"No question," Mazzilli said about the support he feels.

Now, he's getting the team behind him, with him.

"I can tell by how they are, how they react, how they go about things, how they say they're not hurt when they are, which tells me how much they want to play," Mazzilli said.

Still, for a new manager who must be seeking his own comfort level, the loss of McLemore loomed large yesterday. McLemore was Mazzilli's insurance policy, his security blanket, his intermediary between the players and himself.

"What he brings to the team, to the bench, being with the young guys - that definitely changes the dynamics of the team," Mazzilli said.

It also changes the dynamic of the manager's comfort level.

"It's not like someone let the air out of this thing. We'll sit down and look at the whole picture," he said. "One thing I've learned is never make a decision on a down note. Think it out, sleep on it, talk about what you want to do."

Welcome to your new world, Skipper. The more it sinks in, the more complex it gets.

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