Orioles sending the right signals

October 18, 2005|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,SUN REPORTER

It was Oct. 15 and the Orioles' dugout cleared, players bouncing around the Memorial Stadium field like reflections in a house of mirrors. Everyone focused on Brooks or Boog or Palmer, but Ellie was there, too.

Brooks Robinson and that amazing starting staff deserved most of the credit for the 1970 World Series championship. But if you went back to Game 1, you'll recall that Elrod Hendricks' homer in the fifth inning tied the game at 3. History might focus on the fact that Robinson hit the go-ahead shot two innings later, but that's OK with Hendricks.

He has lived in the background for as long as most fans can remember, first as a player, then as a coach. Always in the background, the uncle in the back row, standing at the far end of the family portrait.

Saturday, exactly 35 years after Hendricks celebrated one of the Orioles' brightest days, the team that the old coach cared so much about told him he was no longer needed in the clubhouse.

For all intents and purposes, Hendricks is gone now, and as tough as it might be and as wrong as it might feel, Orioles fans have to embrace the news as a good thing.

These subtle breaks from the past are difficult but necessary. The news trickling out of the front office this week is reason for optimism - not just the details, but also the underlying meaning.

It's not exactly Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but team management is tearing down walls and making sure everyone is working together under the same roof. To do that, it has to reassign some people who have been important to the club.

Jim Beattie is now a team consultant. Yesterday, we learned Hendricks will be moved to an undetermined position and assistant general manager Ed Kenney, a holdover from the Syd Thrift regime, will not be returning next season.

The biggest staff shuffling could still be on the horizon. The Orioles have requested permission to speak with the Braves' successful pitching coach, Leo Mazzone.

Shoring up the pitching is the top priority this offseason, and the prospects of chasing a proven coach like Mazzone, a childhood friend of Perlozzo's, should excite the most disenchanted Orioles backer.

Perlozzo and general manager Mike Flanagan are picking and choosing who else will stick around next season. They've extended an offer to Rick Dempsey and are waiting to hear back.

It wasn't long ago that Dempsey seemed like a viable managerial candidate. Now he's been placed on a coaching island. Accepting the bullpen gig would knock him out of consideration for most other managerial openings and would also curb his influence next season.

The Orioles have already apparently decided that hitting coach Terry Crowley will be back, much to the ire of many fans. One fan site - www.orioleshangout.com - had a recent poll asking whether Crowley should return. Granted the survey is completely unscientific and its respondents are naturally extremist fans, but 95 percent of them said Crowley should go.

They focus on last season's woes, forgetting that the season before, the Orioles set club marks for batting average, hits and doubles. Perlozzo said yesterday that Crowley "certainly didn't get dumb overnight."

"[Last season], we had a tremendous amount of things that were going on in our heads," Perlozzo said. "You can be Houdini, but you can't get in somebody's head when there were so many distractions. That complicated everything."

Yesterday's signs were important ones. Perlozzo's ability to assemble his own group of coaches makes it clear that he's been given some freedoms that weren't afforded to his predecessor.

And Kenney's departure should mean there aren't competing factions in the front office. If anyone was confused last season as to who was calling the shots or who was setting the course, he can rest assured that Flanagan is now holding the steering wheel.

That's a welcome change, if for no other reason than it appears the Orioles are regaining some semblance of direction, regardless of whatever tough decisions need to be made.

Hendricks is part of Orioles lore. Who would ever think a lifetime .220 hitter could be so important to a team? No one spent more time in a Baltimore uniform, and I'm guessing that no one ever will.

Hendricks, of course, is proud but too gracious to criticize the organization.

"Sooner or later, everyone gets canned or put aside or whatever," he said. "I know that some fans will be upset. But life goes on."

No one had worn the colors longer, and few wore them prouder. The Orioles will find a way to keep him involved. Frankly, it'd be hard to picture him doing anything else.

But Ellie's right - life does go on. For the Orioles, every step away from the past, should be viewed as a step toward something better.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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