It's Mazzilli's turn to step up to plate

The Orioles

April 02, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IN AUGUST, two long Orioles losing streaks changed the fates of two baseball men.

Mike Hargrove twice led the Cleveland Indians to the World Series, but what was he supposed to do with the Orioles, especially after Jeff Conine and Sidney Ponson were traded? Lee Mazzilli was a New York Yankees coach wondering how much longer he would have to endure George Steinbrenner, who had taken so many shots at the team that even stalwarts like Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre all agreed life in the Bronx was worse than ever.

All that changed in August. Two games under .500 going into Aug. 11 after beating the Red Sox three of four in Boston, the Orioles lost eight in a row. Dog days were turning into something worse for Hargrove: a reason for Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan to change managers.

Then, it happened again: Nine consecutive losses against the Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, dropping the Orioles to 15 games under .500. Hargrove turned to one of his coaches and asked: "How do you like my minor league team?" Hargrove could feel the end coming, especially after he was unwilling to accept a one-year deal. Mazzilli had no idea his prospects were about to change, thanks to a stunning interview he would have in Baltimore.

Whatever Mazzilli said, whatever attitude he conveyed, it was enough to persuade Flanagan and Beattie to take a chance. The first thing that can't happen? No eight-game losing streaks. No two-week slides into oblivion. That was the crux of Mazzilli's hiring: to bring in fresh energy, one not associated with losing.

Mazzilli was and remains a defining hire in the tenure of this new front office tandem. Miguel Tejada was the offseason prize. Mazzilli is the greater unknown, on whom much of the team's fate depends.

Beattie and Flanagan said they weren't going to make their managerial decision based on a good interview, but with no major league managing experience and less time in the managerial candidate pipeline than candidates like Sam Perlozzo, Mazzilli made a big impression.

Saying all the right things in an interview, however, isn't the same as managing a major league clubhouse and dugout. When Mazzilli posts the lineup card for Sunday night's season opener against the Red Sox, Mazzilli's real interview - the true test - begins.

There are plenty of people who think Mazzilli grabbed a brass ring by landing the Orioles job. Plenty of people think if anyone would have been the perfect fit for a club that spent $123 million on major league free agents, it was Hargrove.

Did Beattie and Flanagan overreach in their desire to cut ties with six seasons of losing (four of them under Hargrove) and establish a new era and new attitude by tabbing Mazzilli? This is the same front office that jumped at Omar Daal for two years. Now the Orioles have introduced an unproven manager into a franchise equation that can't squander more time.

It's going to take more than the two years Mazzilli has in his contract to begin measuring up to the big guns of major league managers. Torre, Lou Piniella, Jack McKeon, Tony La Russa, Frank Robinson, Felipe Alou and Dusty Baker have built their resumes and attained high priest status over many trials and many years, if not decades.

Surely, when he got the call from the Orioles, Mazzilli flashed on what it would be like, joining the rare ranks of major league manager.

What a sight it was this spring: Mazzilli in the Orioles' dugout, talking with Earl Weaver about managing the Orioles. Mazzilli holds the same job Weaver once did, but there are no guarantees. Ask Hargrove, whose greatest sin as Orioles manager was his misfortune of working in the midst of mind-bending franchise mismanagement and Peter Angelos' paralyzing mistrust of the Montreal Expos moving into Orioles territory.

Now, the Orioles are in the clear. The front office is reorganizing and spending, which means Mazzilli has fewer excuses than Hargrove did, with less experience under his belt. Mazzilli must find a way to place himself among that new crop of major league managers if he wants a shot at serving half as long as the game's best, most entrenched skippers.

Mike Scioscia made the Los Angeles Dodgers look silly for letting him cross town to manage the Angels. Look what he did. Led Anaheim to its first World Series title.

Larry Bowa was brought back to Philadelphia, and the fiery manager has stayed a step ahead of a pink slip with a Phillies team built for a World Series run.

Tony Pena has won rave reviews for serving as catalyst for the small-market Kansas City Royals.

These are the more successful stories of some of baseball's recent first-time managers. They are the reason Mazzilli was hired by the Orioles, just as the Chicago White Sox have taken a chance on the high-energy and outspoken Ozzie Guillen.

Mazzilli kept a low profile this spring. He wasn't evasive, but he was not willing to let the media or public into his head. He indicated this was intentional. He played and coached in New York. It's a smart move if Mazzilli kept his head down during his first months with his new club to develop relationships, to concentrate on working inside the clubhouse, in the dugout, getting to know "my guys," as he says.

He talked about learning his players, what each guy can do. He said he has placed a premium on team building. Spring camp was where it all began.

But that's all it was. The preliminary round. The grace period.

Now, more than Tejada, Javy Lopez or Rafael Palmeiro, the work of one Oriole will be most heavily scrutinized by everyone. From Bowie to Havre de Grace, from the owner's box to the press box, Lee Mazzilli is playing the game of his baseball life.

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