Angelos' vote on Mazzilli could swing on how Orioles finish campaign

September 16, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

LEE MAZZILLI got a vote of confidence this week, but it wouldn't be a major surprise if the October recount doesn't go his way.

Orioles VP Mike Flanagan said in Wednesday's edition of The Sun that he sees no reason why Mazzilli would not be back for the 2005 season, but owner Peter Angelos - who has the only vote that really counts - isn't so sure that Maz is the right guy to lead the team back into regular playoff contention.

Well, it's not as if anyone needed a program to figure out who would play the good cop and who would play the bad cop during the final month of another disappointing season.

Flanagan and executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie have to stand behind Mazzilli, or else admit that they made a huge mistake with the most important decision Angelos has ever entrusted to them. The owner is under no such obligation to rubber-stamp the choice, because he did a pretty good job of selling the notion that he had nothing to do with it.

Don't misunderstand. This doesn't necessarily mean there is a big split in the front office over Mazzilli's fate. It only means that Flanagan continues to show support for his manager (which he had better do if he is to have any credibility with the next one) and Angelos retains plausible deni-ability until the time comes for all of them to decide who should manage the team next year.

It is not an easy call. The Orioles are trying to establish organizational stability and continuity, which is the best argument for Mazzilli's return, but they cannot afford a repeat of this disjointed season. Mazzilli was hampered from the outset by an undermanned pitching staff and has had to deal with a string of injuries that largely has prevented him from putting the best nine players on the field, but he also has made his share of questionable decisions that have contributed to the team's uneven performance.

No one is saying that the franchise's seventh straight losing season is all Mazzilli's fault, but that really isn't the issue. This is all about next year, and whether the big boss is confident enough in the guy sitting in the manager's office to justify spending another $100 million or so on free agents to put the Orioles back into the postseason picture.

Right now, if you put Angelos on a polygraph machine, I think everyone knows what the answer would be. Otherwise, he would have joined in Flanagan's ringing endorsement and removed any doubt about the near-term future of the team.

So Mazzilli is left to sing for his supper for another couple of weeks and hope the Orioles finish with enough competitive energy to convince everyone that he still is the man for the job.

There really is no objective measure of a manager except his won-lost record, which - in this case - isn't impressive. There is little hope of getting the team back to .500, but there might be some value in making a good last impression.

Angelos made that clear at midseason when he responded to rumors of his growing dissatisfaction with Mazzilli by publicly stating that he expected the Orioles to play better in the second half.

He got his wish. The team has a significantly better record in the second half (29-29) than it did in the first, but it obviously isn't good enough to guarantee that Angelos will be satisfied with the end result. The Orioles need to embrace the spoiler role in their eight coming games against the Red Sox and take advantage of an otherwise soft remaining schedule to leave the owner with a positive feeling about the direction of the club.

What Mazzilli cannot afford is a dismal ending like the 5-14 finish that persuaded the Orioles to replace Mike Hargrove last year.

Of course, Hargrove presided over a series of losing seasons and a 4-32 finish in 2002 that was the worst in major league history, but he took over a team in competitive and economic decline. Mazzilli sold himself last winter as the guy who could change the losing culture in the Orioles' clubhouse, and he was handed $121 million in new free-agent talent to do it.

Now, in this highly polarized election season, he has to persuade one voter to give him another term.

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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