O's rightly keep Mazzilli

scrutiny will remain, too

October 03, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

THE MOMENT he was surprisingly named manager of the Orioles, Lee Mazzilli was an unknown variable the Orioles might not be easily able to afford. With so many questions to answer, so many needs to fill, how to evaluate a rookie manager in all this rebuilding? When the first half of his rookie season fast skidded below the .500 mark, patience grew short, if not testy, for Mazzilli. This stuff comes with the territory.

The minor league pitching and the rash of injuries were not his fault, but then again, so what? A manager is only as good as his record, and for that, the rope felt awfully short.

Then, the Orioles came back from the All-Star break, Ray Miller was in charge of the pitching staff, and Miguel Tejada put the team on his back. By this final weekend of the Orioles' 2004 season, any reason to opt for another start with another manager made no sense.

With confirmation that Mazzilli will be back, time is now on his side, unless there's another first-half swoon, or, an improved roster yields similarly mediocre results.

Time may be on his side, but the scrutiny won't stop.

A clubhouse meeting during a mid-August trip to Oakland apparently found Mazzilli making a distinction between him and the team.

Mired in a 12-game losing streak, Mazzilli issued a cutting reminder that seemed to emphasize the difference between where Mazzilli came from, the New York Yankees, and the six-year-loser Orioles.

Several Orioles players say Mazzilli chastised them.

"That's why you guys lose 90 games a year." Digging at the losing clubhouse atmosphere was one thing. Calling the team "you guys" is what made some players question whether Mazzilli was concerned for them, or himself.

United as players may be in an opinion that the rookie manager hasn't shown the shrewdness to help win close games or done the best job inspiring their loyalty, Mazzilli may have done the next best thing: He was willing to provoke an atmosphere of prickly self-reflection. He called us losers? Well, if that particularly unflattering shoe fits, time to get another shoe - or at least a boot in the backside.

Maybe Mazzilli remembered that former Orioles manager Mike Hargrove sealed his fate during late-season losing streaks. A horrendous 4-32 slide on Hargrove's watch in 2002 made the Orioles flirt with historic infamy. It wasn't much better last September.

At least by then, the entire Orioles organization was percolating with an unmistakable sense that new vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan were going to put their stamp on the franchise.

Probably Mazzilli remembered that in his job interview last year - the one that so impressed Flanagan and Beattie that they surprisingly leapfrogged Mazzilli to the head of their list - Mazzilli closed the deal on this one point: He told the Orioles' brass that had he been manager in 2003, when the Orioles went to Tampa Bay after a great series in Boston and then got swept by the Devil Rays, the players would've heard about it in no uncertain terms.

Guess what? Mazzilli apparently got his wish - and the results of this closed-door meeting are tough to dispute. The losing streak was followed by a 20-15 run through last night's Game 2 loss to Boston. It was a second-half surge in which the Orioles affirmed they're heading in the right direction.

That has secured Mazzilli's job for next season, the final of his two-year deal. Had the Orioles contemplated a change at manager, something Angelos suggested could be a possibility, it wouldn't necessarily have been wrong. It would just be the wrong time.

The biggest issue facing the field manager this winter could have been whether Mazzilli would move to replace some of the long-standing Orioles coaches with "his own." That's not the case now after Flanagan announced last night that the staff would be retained. Sam Perlozzo wasn't going to move easily from the bench, nor should he have. The rest of the Orioles' staff is one of the most popular and veteran in all of baseball, particularly with Miller back. They deserve to be here.

But the most important groundwork the Orioles needed to lay was on the roster, in the clubhouse, on the field. That needed to be done whether Mazzilli was brought in or Hargrove got to stay. That Mazzilli gets to work with more talent than the Orioles have fielded in six seasons is his luck. Maybe that's half of it in the managing game, but luck doesn't last forever. Time will tell.

What's known and what's good is that it's a different Orioles clubhouse on this final day of the 2004 season than it was a year ago, or the year before that. September slides into oblivion are over. A corner has been turned.

For that, baseball fans in Baltimore should thank ... not Mazzilli, but Miguel Tejada.

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