Though water keeps rising, Mazzilli keeps his head up

Orioles In Crisis

Baseball

August 04, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Before you consider putting anybody else in his office, put yourself in Lee Mazzilli's place.

Try to imagine how you would react if your boss didn't like you and the people working under you kept screwing up so bad that a lot of important customers would like to see you replaced.

That's essentially the state of the Orioles today, but if you are waiting to hear Mazzilli start crying about it ... or do something professionally self-destructive ... you're going to be waiting a long time.

That calm demeanor that so frustrates the Earl Weaver aficionados in Baltimore isn't some Torre-esque affectation. If Mazzilli wasn't going to crack after the great June swoon and the recent bombshell Raffy revelations, what you see is probably what you're going to get for the remainder of his Orioles managerial career - however short that may be.

Which prompted me to pull him aside yesterday and ask him a question that has been hanging in the back of my mind since the Davey Johnson era.

"Is being the manager of the Orioles, in all their dysfunctional non-glory, really worth the trouble?"

Maz looked at me hard and he took his time to answer, but it wasn't because he didn't already know what he was going to say.

"Absolutely," he said, and he said it in a very absolute tone of voice for a guy whose seat is so hot that he might be better off sitting somewhere else.

"This is not a bad team. We're just not playing like a good team."

Of course, the way this discouraging state of affairs is perceived by Mazzilli is less important than the way Mazzilli is perceived by owner Peter Angelos, who has made it clear with his inaction on Maz's 2006 contract option that he isn't exactly sold on the second-year Orioles manager.

In fact, it is reaching the point where Angelos probably ought to come to grips with that for the good of the club. If he knows that he isn't going to bring Mazzilli back next year, it might be time to send Maz to a better place (that would be any place at this point) and turn the job over to the next guy who will be in this same situation in a couple of years.

No sense wasting the last two months of the season when you can audition Sam Perlozzo or Rick Dempsey or Eddie Murray or whoever is on the short list to inherit this mess.

Angelos has been noncommittal, but Mazzilli is not. He probably has one of those bumper stickers on his car that says, "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it sure helps."

"I believe in this institution," he said, perhaps not realizing that referring to the Orioles organization as an "institution" might lead me off on some sarcastic riff about the odd people who populate it.

"I put this uniform on and I believe in it," Mazzilli said. "I'm committed to making this better."

The only thing I can say to that is, good luck.

The Orioles spent 62 games in first place during the first half, and the front office balked at the one dynamic move that could have stemmed the club's recent meltdown.

Angelos looked at the proposed A.J. Burnett/Mike Lowell package from the Florida Marlins and found about 60 million reasons not to like it. That's how many dollars it would have cost to sign Burnett and pay the remainder of Lowell's contract.

It also may have been the only way for the Orioles to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth ... but they passed.

Mazzilli didn't say a word, though he is believed to have been strongly in favor of the deal. He has never publicly aired any discontent over the way this flawed team has been put together.

People whisper that he would rather be back in New York ... that he'll always be a Yankee at heart, but he insists that he wouldn't want to be anywhere but here, not even at this low point in the season - which is a Southwest Airlines "Want to Get Away?" moment if ever there was one.

"I truly love doing this," he said. "It eats you up sometimes, but I can honestly say that there has not been one day that I've been in this uniform that I didn't look forward to coming to the ballpark."

Every leading indicator says he'll be wearing that uniform for only a couple more months at most. If Vegas were setting a betting line on Maz in 2006, the odds would probably be 50-1 against the Orioles picking up the club option contained in his current contract.

That's the cold, hard reality of the situation, but it does not answer the fundamental question that Angelos needs to ask himself as he ponders another change in direction for his directionless franchise:

Can the Orioles afford to start over again every two years and still keep their legions of skeptical fans convinced that they ultimately will get where they want to go?

It looks like we're going to find out.

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

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