Mazzilli left misty by O's final victory

Trying to thank his 78-84 team, manager chokes up

`we've made a lot of progress'

October 04, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Given one last chance to hold a team meeting yesterday, his first season as Orioles manager ending with a victory, Lee Mazzilli stood in front of his players with dark shades hiding his eyes and emotions that were much too obvious.

He wanted to thank them for the effort, for not quitting on him. He wanted to say a lot of things, if only the words had come more easily. If only they had come at all.

"It didn't last long," he said, "because I couldn't get through it."

On the field, the Orioles chucked baseballs and caps at a crowd of 42,104 after a 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. They shook hands, hugged, savored their time together until scattering across the country. They won't make the playoffs, but it looked like a celebration.

They are a third-place team, with seven fewer losses than last season. Mazzilli will return next season, ending months of intense speculation. No wonder he didn't rush out of the clubhouse, except to avoid breaking down in front of everyone.

"The passion, the people we have on this team. I think it was all of it put together," Mazzilli said, his eyes still red and moist. "You get a lump in your throat when you talk to them like that."

With so much he wanted to convey, the meeting was supposed to last longer than it did.

How brief was it?

"About 30 seconds," Larry Bigbie said.

"He wanted to thank the team for battling for him. I'm sure he was feeling some pressure there at some points in the season, and he just thanked us for not rolling over. He's got that tough-guy mentality, and that's good for a manager. But for players, it's good to see that he cares."

It wasn't like this when Mazzilli coached first base for the New York Yankees and had no reason to hold court or lower his guard. The lessons that come as a first-year manager stretched into his final day, inside a clubhouse that went silent about the same time he did.

"The hard-core Italian, you don't expect that," Brian Roberts said. "It's just a long, grinding season, and we put a lot into it. Being his first managerial experience, I'm sure it's something he'll remember forever."

He might want to skip how the Red Sox treated yesterday like an intrasquad game, removing players after their first at-bats while gearing for the postseason. David McCarty took the mound in the sixth, strange territory for a part-time outfielder-first baseman, and threw two scoreless innings after David Newhan's sacrifice fly off Scott Williamson broke a 2-2 tie.

Miguel Tejada, who drove in his 150th run after being named the team's Most Valuable Player, jogged off the field in the sixth inning to a standing ovation, and B.J. Surhoff was given the same treatment in the seventh. B.J. Ryan got the last three outs, leaving the Orioles at 78-84, with their most wins since 1999. They went 71-91 in 2003.

"We have a mission that we're set on doing, and we're on that track. We've made a lot of progress, and we're looking to build on that," Mazzilli said.

"We had a couple of bad streaks, and that happens. This team plays good baseball, exciting baseball. And that's what we are going to continue to do."

Executive vice president Jim Beattie said a 37-48 record at the break didn't change his mind about Mazzilli.

"I know publicly there were some questions about it, but I thought it was a learning and a growing process for all of us, going through this year with Maz," Beattie said. "We talked about getting better, and I think we all got better in the second half. ... I don't know that there was ever a big concern on my part that he was questionable."

Mazzilli said he knew "for a while" he would return. All six coaches have been invited back, which Mazzilli said he recommended in talks with Beattie, owner Peter G. Angelos and vice president Mike Flanagan.

"That was my decision," he said. "They have the relationship with the players, they had a year under myself and I had a year with them, as well. It took a little time for them to know me and my style and what I wanted to do. That's just a process that you go through."

So is building a winner as another team moves into Washington next season.

"Peter made a commitment to the city last year, what he did, and he's making a commitment to this team for the future," Mazzilli said. "This is a club that many people feel is on the horizon."

That includes Beattie, who met with reporters in the dugout earlier in the day to talk about Mazzilli and his timetable for making the playoffs.

"I want to be standing here next year," Beattie said, "with the idea that we've got a few more games to play in October."

If they do, Mazzilli will need to practice a new speech, dark shades at the ready.

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