From start, Mazzilli, O's not right for each other

Orioles Fire Mazzilli

August 05, 2005|By Dan Connolly

LEE MAZZILLI isn't a bad guy.

History may show he's not a bad manager.

But Mazzilli was a bad fit in Baltimore.

That's the bottom line, and that's why he was fired yesterday with two months remaining in his second season.

Mazzilli was a dark-horse candidate for the Orioles job in November 2003, but he apparently wowed team executive vice president Jim Beattie and vice president Mike Flanagan during interviews.

Inadvertently, that was the first strike against him.

From the start, he wasn't owner Peter Angelos' choice. Angelos, who has been criticized through the years for too much involvement in baseball affairs, wanted to be hands-off in the 2003 managerial search. If he had made the call, he likely would have chosen Sam Perlozzo, who was named Mazzilli's interim replacement yesterday. But Angelos didn't intervene. He allowed Beattie and Flanagan to pick.

And they selected a native New Yorker. A New York Yankee at that.

That was sacrilege in tradition-mad Baltimore, where the city slogan should be, "We're friendly enough, so long as you're not from New York or D.C."

Mazzilli, who spent four years as Joe Torre's first base coach, tried to immediately shake that Bronx Bomber aura. He inherited Mike Hargrove's coaching staff without complaint. He said the right things during his first spring training, stressing he was an Oriole, not a Yankee.

It's the way he said those things, though, that was so unexpected. Not with New York bluster, not with the confidence expected from a great interviewee, not with the flair of someone who once starred in an off-Broadway play.

No, Mazzilli was soft-spoken, reserved. And he carried that to the dugout, where he often chomped his gum and watched in silence.

That was strike two.

Like it or not, Baltimore is and always will be Earl Weaver's managerial town. He was loud, he was cantankerous and he won. So his style won't be forgotten.

Major League Baseball isn't college football. It's 162 games, not 12. You don't need a rah-rah or in-your-face type. Try those methods now and backs will be turned on you within weeks.

But Mazzilli was so subdued, so quiet that he often appeared uninterested and lifeless on a stage once roamed by Weaver, Cal Ripken Sr. and Frank Robinson.

It took Mazzilli more than a full season to get ejected - perhaps an admirable accomplishment in some places, but not here.

The fear was that the team, paced by the frenetic Miguel Tejada, was losing its energy and morphing into Mazzilli's languid personality.

But Mazzilli didn't drain the Orioles' fun. Losing did.

And that was fatal strike three.

There were grumblings last year that Mazzilli had lost the clubhouse. There were a few disgruntled murmurs early on in 2005 that he wasn't handling the bullpen or bench properly. Like that June series in Pittsburgh when he had Napoleon Calzado pinch-hit in a key situation one night and left Jorge Julio in to give up two deflating homers the next.

But the Orioles, pocked with flaws, were winning. And individual grumbling can sound like selfish complaining when a club is having success.

When the losses mount, though, everything changes. Negativity is contagious. And, really, this 2005 squad was a recipe for a chemistry disaster.

Its supposed ace had two arrests and a bloated ERA. Its real ace had lingering knee pain. There were more injuries. A staph infection. Trade winds. And the season's feel-good moment stripped away two weeks later when the world learns your standup legend is a steroid-taker.

Mazzilli tried to weather it all. He just rarely seemed to push the right buttons, especially at the end. The team ran itself out of innings, then left too many runners on base. Workhorse closer B.J. Ryan was abused. Bench guys withered on the pine. Sidney Ponson stayed in the rotation. Then there was Sammy Sosa, who really handcuffed Mazzilli.

He kept the aging slugger at cleanup too long. Then he moved Sosa to fifth, sixth, second and even temporarily to the bench. Nothing worked. And the season grew bleak.

Still, if this team hadn't been in contention and then lost 16 of its first 20 after the All-Star break, Mazzilli would be the manager.

But unless the Orioles made the playoffs, Mazzilli's $550,000 option for 2006 wouldn't have been picked up.

It's unfortunate, but the soft-spoken New Yorker never was a good fit for Charm City.

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