If it's `no' on Perlozzo, maybe `yes' on Piniella

September 16, 2005|By Rick Maese

PREDICTING the Orioles' future is about as easy as spotting Robert Frost poetry in a bowl of alphabet soup. But it's certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that the future manager of the Orioles will be on the field tonight at Camden Yards.

I just can't tell you which dugout he's sitting in.

On the third base side, wearing a Tampa Bay Devil Rays cap - at least for the next three weeks - is Lou Piniella. Across the diamond is his understudy and friend, Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles' interim manager.

Either is a good choice; either makes sense. (Which of course might lead you to believe the Orioles will instead chase a guy managing in a Canadian semipro league with a wooden leg and a French accent, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Perlozzo seemed to have the early endorsement from the front office. He has done little to hurt his chances, but he has also done little to show he's definitely the guy to hold the reins next season.

He inherited a meek roster, and he shouldn't be judged on wins and losses. That's why Perlozzo's best marks come from his performance outside the lines.

While the Orioles' brass has ducked away from recent controversies, Perlozzo has been left to act as the face of the ballclub. He was trying to answer the tough questions while Peter Angelos pulled strings from far away, Jim Beattie shied away from substantive answers and Mike Flanagan was more likely to be spotted on the side of a milk carton than at the ballpark.

Perlozzo seemed to be the top choice - but this was before Sweet Lou seemed like a possibility.

After a verbal run-in with Devil Rays management early in the season, Piniella tried to quell talk he might be looking to leave Tampa Bay.

"I signed for four years here three years ago, and I'm going to honor my contract," Piniella told reporters in June.

Does that sound familiar? In October 2002, he told Seattle reporters: "I have a contract for next season with the Mariners. I intend to honor that contract." Two weeks later, he was gone, signing a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay.

So it should come as little surprise that the rumors swirling around baseball indicate Piniella has had enough of the penny-pinching franchise and is ready to get out. In St. Petersburg, a boy collecting empty soda cans is in position to outspend the Rays.

Piniella brings his young team into Baltimore at a time when his agent is said to be negotiating a buyout settlement with team management. The final year of his contract is supposed to pay Piniella $4.5 million. The Devil Rays, who will enter next season with a new owner and general manager, also owe Piniella more than $1 million in deferred salary from 2003.

The media in New York last week predictably peppered Piniella. If the Yankees and their $206 million payroll miss the playoffs, Joe Torre might need to scan the classifieds and King George might turn to a familiar face.

"I honestly don't know what the future holds," Piniella said last week. "I only know that I'd like one more deal before I retire, but it's got to be with a team where ownership is committed to winning."

When he left Seattle, he said he wanted to go with an East Coast team that trains in Florida. This time around, sick of losing, he's also saying he wants to manage a contender.

East Coast? Check. Train in Florida? Check. Contending? Well, all the Orioles need is a power-hitting outfielder, a closer, a couple of starters, a setup man - whew - and maybe a first baseman with some pop in his bat. Lou, we're almost there, baby!

Don't expect Piniella to chase the Orioles' job as long as Perlozzo is a candidate. Perlozzo coached for six seasons under Piniella in Cincinnati and Seattle, and the two remain friends.

They're both smart baseball men. They both inspire the respect of the players in the clubhouse. Piniella is one of the most animated and excitable men to step onto a diamond. He's today's version of Earl Weaver.

Wouldn't you like to see that kind of passion back on the field here? Piniella spent part of his early career in the Orioles' system. As the story goes, that's where he and Weaver developed a bit of a feud. When Piniella was with the Yankees, the Orioles visited town and Weaver kept jawing at Piniella from the dugout.

Standing at the plate, Piniella had had enough, throwing down his bat and starting for the dugout. Weaver ran for the tunnel.

That's the stuff I want to see next year, something that resembles passion. This year is marked by skeptical foot injuries, nonstop doublespeak and controversies. That spark has been missing.

I think Perlozzo might have it in him, but I know Piniella does.

If the Orioles aren't sold on their interim manager, they need to take Piniella out for some crabcakes, show him the Inner Harbor and keep him as far away from pinstripes as possible.

Contact Rick Maese at rick.maese@baltsun.com.

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