Beneath his quiet exit lies a loud statement

Orioles Fire Mazzilli

August 05, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Lee Mazzilli could have gone down swinging. He could have kicked and screamed and aired the dirty laundry of an organization that has been so soiled this week that one more sad story probably wouldn't have made any difference anyway.

He didn't do that, choosing to take the high road as he headed down the highway toward Los Angeles International Airport yesterday morning.

"You're heartbroken a little bit," he said by cell phone, "because you want to see it through."

See what through ... a season so disjointed that Sidney Ponson's Christmas bash now looks like comic relief next to the events of the past week? An organizational plan that is subject to the day-to-day whims of an owner who showed little public support for the manager even when the surprising Orioles were on top of the American League East standings?

Maybe Maz is the lucky one. He gets to go home and pat the kids on the head and collect the rest of his pay for the 2005 season, and - unlike Rafael Palmeiro - he gets to retain his dignity.

That seemed to be Job One yesterday as the mounting problems of the Orioles disappeared in the rearview mirror. Mazzilli quietly thanked the fans of Baltimore, the players and even Peter Angelos for his first opportunity to manage at the major league level. If it didn't go well, well, he was willing to take the blame and move on.

"The people of Baltimore have really been outstanding to me," he said. "They took care of me and my family. They don't call it the Charm City for nothing."

That's all very nice, of course, but if everything was just ducky we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we? The Orioles remain one of the most dysfunctional management operations in any professional sport, and it would be naive to think that this is the move that is going to finally set them on the path to glory.

Mazzilli doesn't want to say it because it would look like sour grapes, but you know that he's thinking it because you're thinking it yourself.

Coincidentally, this subject came up Wednesday during a lengthy interview with Mazzilli in the visiting manager's office at Angel Stadium, and Mazzilli - while clearly frustrated with the collapse of his team and the halfhearted effort of ownership to improve it - steadfastly refused to criticize the disapproving owner.

"I'll never do that," he said. "That's just not what we do."

It was an interesting and cryptic remark that left me wondering who he meant by "we." I almost thought he was referring to the Yankees, a team that retains its classy image despite the sometimes classless machinations of volatile owner George Steinbrenner.

Mazzilli scoffed at the notion, but don't be surprised if he's back in pinstripes by spring training. He has been to manager school and now he can take his place among the possible successors to his close friend and mentor, Joe Torre. Maybe it was always going to be that way.

One thing is certain. He will go back to New York with new tales of a rival organization that can't get out of its own way, and the Yankees will worry just that much less about the likelihood that the Orioles will soon re-establish themselves as one of the dominant franchises in the American League.

Maz tried to stay on message yesterday, stressing accountability instead of acrimony, but the conversation kept coming back to a front office that failed to do anything dynamic while its most promising season in eight years was slipping away.

"I'm not going to get into that," Mazzilli said. "I'm sure you'll find a way to read between the lines. You're pretty good at that."

If that sounds to you like a reproof, it sounded to me like permission. Mazzilli made his share of mistakes during a little more than 1 1/2 seasons as manager. He had his critics in the clubhouse. But he deserved some credit for being the first manager since Davey Johnson to keep the Orioles in legitimate contention beyond the All-Star break.

Instead, with the Orioles exceeding all preseason expectations during the first half, all he got from the owner was a surprisingly tepid public evaluation that left the distinct impression Mazzilli would be given every opportunity to fail before a decision was made on his future.

It's funny, but Mazzilli has had ample reason to blow his stack at me on several occasions over the past year or so. He wasn't happy when I cautioned in print that he might be wearing out B.J. Ryan early this season, and he didn't like the way I rehashed some of his lesser managerial moments in the column that strongly predicted his dismissal several weeks ago.

But the first time he ever seemed really angry in a face-to-face conversation was when I brought up the subject of the owner's apparent lack of confidence in him on Wednesday.

He just couldn't understand it, and it was clearly a matter of great frustration, but he refused to make it a public issue and insisted (and here I may be breaking a confidence) that he would not be intimidated and he would not fall into the trap of changing his managerial style to curry the owner's approval.

Fifteen hours later, Mazzilli was in an airport limo and the Angelos question came up again.

"He gave me a chance," Maz said, and left it at that.

It was a pretty short answer, but you can still read between the lines.

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