O's hope laughter is best medicine

Looser Perlozzo era includes joke of day

March 13, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's been the last thing the Orioles do before taking the field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring. Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo will communicate the plans for that day's workout and concede the focal point of the Orioles' clubhouse to any player or coach gutsy enough to accept it.

Newcomers Kevin Millar and LaTroy Hawkins have stepped up. Batting practice pitcher Orlando Gomez made the most of his turn. And pitcher Bruce Chen and bullpen coach Rick Dempsey have been mainstays.

Their only responsibility in delivering the Joke of the Day has been to get people to laugh - at any cost.

"It just kind of happened one day and I said, `You know what? I like this, we're going to keep doing it,'" Perlozzo said. "When you talk about chemistry on our ballclub, the fact that somebody can stand up in front of a bunch of people, that's another leader. We're bringing guys up that aren't afraid to do that. It's a big roar of a laugh before you walk out of the door. I don't know if it is going to make you win any games, but it is fun. The game is supposed to be fun."

In his first spring training as manager, Perlozzo is attempting to leave his imprint on the club and he has started by trying to repair a clubhouse that was fractured last season during the Orioles' fall from first to fourth place in the American League East. The most controversial residents of last year's clubhouse - Sidney Ponson, Steve Kline, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro - are gone.

Millar and Jeff Conine, both known for their strong clubhouse presence, were among the players brought in to replace them.

"There is a better group of guys here, guys that are more willing to hang around, talk to each other a lot more," outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "People don't have to worry about offending other people. It makes it a lot more fun to come to the ballpark every day. It just got to the point last year where half the team wasn't talking to the other half of the team at times. It seemed like everybody was mad. It was pretty miserable."

Millar and Conine have kept the Orioles laughing this spring. During one drill yesterday, Conine, a base runner during a fielding drill in which coach Tom Trebelhorn was the batter, spiked his helmet and screamed at himself after Trebelhorn had hit a pop-up in the infield. Moments later, Millar drew laughs by loudly referring to Chen as "Chen Ho Park," a reference to San Diego pitcher Chan Ho Park.

"I think you have guys opening up slowly but surely and there is a lot of laughing going on," Millar, the former leader of Boston's wild clubhouse, said. "It's a long season we are getting ready for and you are going to go through a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Having fun with each other is all part of it."

When he signed with the Orioles, Millar said that he wouldn't stand for clubhouse cliques. "We're going to eat together, shower together and win together," Millar vowed yesterday.

Several of the Orioles acknowledged last year that too many cliques divided the team. Several of the Latin American players hung out, the relievers held court in one part of the clubhouse, and several of the longest-tenured Orioles, like Roberts, Gibbons and Larry Bigbie, were often together.

Before shortstop Miguel Tejada left for the World Baseball Classic about 10 days ago, his locker remained a popular post-game meeting spot for the Latin American players. Still, several Orioles said the clubhouse is as united as it has ever been.

"The only thing I can tell you is that [Perlozzo] keeps everybody together," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "Nobody is afraid to say whatever they feel. Everybody is joking. It's the one thing that I've never seen in the clubhouse since I've been here."

Several of the Orioles credited Perlozzo for creating a loose environment. This spring, he has leveled few rules - cell phones need to be off for team meetings, tardiness earns a fine - but enforced them to the violators. If players are late for meetings without notifying a team official, they aren't allowed to enter the clubhouse until the meeting is over.

Several players said that it was hard to take certain rules seriously, especially after manager Lee Mazzilli's cell phone went off - to the theme song of The Godfather - during a meeting two days after he established the rule punishing cell phone violators.

"He's treating us like adults, but you screw up, you're going to face the consequences," Gibbons said.

Gibbons turned down his chance to deliver the Joke of the Day, saying, "I told them just watching me play defense will make you laugh enough. But Dempsey has told a few and he's the worst joke teller ever."

Perlozzo ranked Gomez, Hawkins and Millar as the best Orioles quipsters.

"Sometimes it takes a little prodding, and when it becomes a little too much of a prod, I expect one of our staff members to step up and tell the joke," Perlozzo said. "I think the guys love it."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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