Mazzilli manages new comfort level

February 25, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Official Day 1 of Year 2 for Lee Mazzilli: The message he delivered to the Orioles yesterday was as much a challenge to himself as it was to his team.

"I told them, `Have your own identity. Be themselves. Show your personality. Do what you do best and be who you are,'" Mazzilli said.

It's a different message from his inaugural team address a year ago, when the rookie manager felt it was his job to instill a winning mind-set on a club that had six consecutive losing seasons.

Mazzilli is loath to admit he was nervous a year ago, the day he walked into the clubhouse to face the first major league team that was his to manage.

But he calls it different this spring. He's not feeling his way around, learning the personalities of his players, wondering whom to trust on a veteran coaching staff that was totally new to him.

You can't treat every player the same way, Mazzilli said. Some of the coaches had interviewed for the Orioles' manager's job. In New York, Joe Torre was not asked to sell the Yankees in the way Mazzilli was needed to help stamp a new face on the Orioles.

It was a big job. A lot of ropes to learn - and hang yourself with. Mazzilli survived.

The look on his face yesterday, the first official workout day for the Orioles, told the story of a manager who has completed a big chunk of the disconcerting grunt work.

"Was I tired after the season? I slept for a week," Mazzilli said yesterday. "I didn't know what to expect, so there's a difference now. There's a comfort factor with people you know."

Maybe it's vice versa. He's known, too. A more familiar face. Yesterday, Mazzilli got a big round of applause from the crowd in the stands at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

The knock against Mazzilli throughout much of his first season was that he was too isolated from his coaching staff, which he inherited, and far too reticent with the media and fans, who expected more candor and originality from the native New Yorker.

The platitudes and cliches were either the sign of a self-protective manager who refused to give away anything or a manager without the requisite tools to succeed. No one wanted to believe the latter, so it's good to see Mazzilli be more willing to take his own advice and be himself.

"But I still don't trust any of you guys," Mazzilli said, smiling - sort of - at the group of reporters in camp.

If any one thing accounts for Mazzilli's greater sense of ease - besides the trade for Sosa that adds a powerful bat to the lineup - it was the return of Ray Miller as Orioles pitching coach last June 26.

Miller knows best everything Mazzilli has to deal with, which is why the former Orioles manager can promise the current Orioles manager one very important thing: trust.

In baseball, nothing is as important in a clubhouse or dugout.

With his experience, Miller can astutely and humorously detail the intricacies of establishing loyalty and trust in a clubhouse. It's a tough job, one that can't be established just by getting the job and walking through the door.

"I have no desire to ever manage again," Miller said yesterday, smiling the relaxed smile of a man whose best role now, besides stabilizing a young pitching staff, is to ride shotgun for Mazzilli.

"I can head off a lot of [stuff]. But I don't want to keep getting credit for the pitching staff. He's good with situations, when he wants to use a left or a right arm," Miller said.

The Orioles were last in the American League with a 5.34 ERA in 69 games when Miller was brought back as pitching coach. Over the remaining 93 games, the Orioles bolted to No. 2. This is the most glaring baseball reason why a difficult start for Mazzilli turned into a career reprieve.

"It's tough to manage when your pitchers can't get the ball over the plate," Miller said.

Beyond the settling of the pitching staff, however, Miller became a conduit between Mazzilli and the rest of the Orioles' organization.

"He's an outstanding young manager. He knows the game," Miller said.

"He's very good, if there's a problem, of getting it settled. No one's better at one-on-one and getting the best out of people. I told him that last year, but he didn't want to hear it. He has a way of talking to a guy in his office and the guy winds up having a big day. I told him he should do more of that."

Mazzilli needed this kind of encouragement and backing.

"Everyone is critical of the manager, but what people don't realize is that a manager is most critical of himself," Miller said.

"Sometimes you need to be able to close the door of your office and talk to someone, let it out. I've been through the mill, so to speak."

The mill still lurks for Mazzilli, but he's more relaxed and ready.

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