Hiring 1st-year manager looks like rookie mistake

July 18, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

YES, IT'S TIME once again to drum up that baseball adage: You're never as good as you seem when things are going good; you're never as bad as you seem when things are going bad.

Let's pray that's the case. Baseball-tortured Baltimore can't afford to live through another failure, which would mean another reconstruction plan.

There's something seriously wrong when a rookie manager has to nervously shovel a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth in the bottom of the ninth as his closer (Jorge Julio) walks a batter (the Devil Rays' Tino Martinez) to load the bases in a one-run game that the Orioles can't afford to blow.

If Lee Mazzilli is on the hot seat, everyone else in the Orioles' organization is on the hot seat, too. That goes especially for the guys who decided Mazzilli was the clear-cut choice to manage this club.

So there. That's your Orioles postcard and update from Tampa Bay, the first post-All-Star Game pit stop for the cellar dwellers of the American League East.

Anyone with any sense of how tough it is to build a winning franchise should never have thought it cute or fun or cutting-edge to install a rookie manager at the helm of a team that has had six straight losing seasons.

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan would say Mazzilli was such a hot managerial prospect that he would have been the Devil Rays' choice had Lou Piniella not decided Seattle was too far from his Tampa home.

Still, the Devil Rays could have afforded to take a chance on an unproven manager. They have never won anything. They have no championship reputation to restore. They are not trying to stave off a National League team being placed in what they view as their territory. They must only produce .500 seasons to think they've arrived, and yet now look at them.

The Orioles needed a less-risky choice than Mazzilli in such a high-profile, high-stakes position. They could ill afford to make a mistake in this choice, not at this critical juncture of the organization's so-called rebuilding plan.

The reason Mazzilli is being regarded with such skepticism is because, like so much else about the Orioles this season, including the team's ability to compete, he was oversold by the front office.

Mazzilli came in and won the job by way of a dazzling four-hour interview? All winter and into spring, the feeling among most national baseball insiders was that Mazzilli must possess some never-before-seen insight into how to run a club.

The interview reportedly was so enthralling, so convincing, the losing candidates might have wished that secret tapes had been recorded. Everyone's dying to know what it is that so convincingly told Jim Beattie and Flanagan that this was far and away the best choice.

Otherwise, a rookie manager from another organization was simply a gamble - and a gamble the Orioles should not have wanted to take. There was way too much at stake, considering the rebuilding at hand and the Yankees and Red Sox each on the schedule 19 times a season.

The pitfalls were many - as everyone can now see that the Orioles have produced a half season that must be considered a worst-case scenario.

This season was an especially dangerous time to introduce this unknown piece into a difficult puzzle. There was no guarantee the Orioles would break .500, despite committing $123 million to free agents.

There was absolutely no reason to have thought a rookie manager should have his star hooked to the kind of raw, unproven pitching staff the Orioles installed. Forget that Mike Hargrove was associated with the losing Orioles. He wasn't a loser.

Better to have let Hargrove come back, for the sake of continuity. That way, all the disparate problems that now face the Orioles don't get pinned on an unproven rookie manager. It's a variable too easy to finger in the blame game.

This was a miscalculation by the front office, which was too eager to get some juice and put its stamp on the club without laying a good foundation on which its choice could succeed. Think: Horse before the cart.

Consider this: If the Orioles were still this bad with Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro and the talk was about Hargrove on the hot seat, it would not look nearly as bad for the front office.

If it was Hargrove, at least everyone could more easily rationalize that it was time to try something new, thus justifying talk about firing the manager.

But Mazzilli? He has not exactly aced the test so far, but the perception of him being on the hot seat doesn't do any good except further diminish the perception of the Orioles as perennially and congenitally defective - or, at least organizationally challenged since 1983.

And what happened in that first game back after the All-Star break, which marked a tense first march Mazzilli and the Orioles must endure on a possible climb out of the dark hole? Luckily for the Orioles, Julio got the third out on a pop fly to end the game.

The Orioles' veteran coaching staff came over to Mazzilli in the dugout and shook his hand.

These are big games, but they're big games for too many wrong reasons.

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