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Angelos reserves judgment on Mazzilli

Flanagan says O's manager will return for 2nd year, but owner isn't convinced; Last 20 games of 66-76 O's may decide his fate

By Joe Christensen

Sun Staff

Originally published September 15, 2004

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan gave manager Lee Mazzilli a ringing endorsement this week, saying he sees no reason Mazzilli won't be back for a second season next year.

But team owner Peter Angelos has told close associates he still isn't convinced Mazzilli should return. The Orioles have 20 games remaining, and yesterday, high-ranking team officials said Angelos probably won't make a final decision until the season ends.





Mazzilli, who signed a two-year deal with two option years last November, has had an up-and-down first season at the team's helm.


At 66-76, the Orioles are headed toward their seventh straight sub-.500 finish, and expectations were higher this time because Angelos spent $121 million on free agents Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson.


At midseason, when the Orioles were sitting in last place in the American League East, Angelos said he expected the team to play better in the second half, hinting anything less could cost Mazzilli his job.


The Orioles are 29-28 since the All-Star break and have risen to third place, thanks in part to lackluster play by Tampa Bay and Toronto.


Still, a third-place finish could end a string of six consecutive years in fourth place for the Orioles. They are on pace to finish at 75-87, which would be their best season since they went 78-84 in 1999.


Flanagan not only endorsed Mazzilli, but he also said the coaching staff should be kept intact. "We haven't made the final decisions on it," Flanagan said, "but I would say at this point, I don't see any reasons for change."


Flanagan was one of Mazzilli's strongest supporters during the managerial search last fall. He and executive vice president Jim Beattie interviewed eight candidates and went to Angelos with their choice.


Angelos, who didn't participate in the interviews, signed off on Mazzilli, but made it known his first choice would have been longtime bench coach Sam Perlozzo.


As Mazzilli's first season nears an end, Flanagan said he's sure the team made the right decision.


"I think it's one of the best-managed clubhouses I've seen in a while," said Flanagan, who accompanied the team to Toronto this week. "[Mazzilli] gets them to play hard. He knows when to call a meeting. He knows when to pump them up. He knows when to get on them. He has a real good sense about all of that."


A sample of players seemed to agree. Though some have privately bristled about Mazzilli's lineup and strategy decisions, few have gone so far as to say he's lost the team's respect. And any major league clubhouse will have a few jaded individuals who feel that way about a manager - especially a first-year manager on a losing team.



Enough fire?


When the Orioles fired Mike Hargrove, it was said he was too laid-back and didn't have enough fire. Surprisingly, this has already been a criticism for Mazzilli, who has yet to draw his first umpire's ejection.


"I think he's been very businesslike in the dugout," Flanagan said. "I think, at times, we've wanted him to be a little more animated in the dugout, but I think he does his best work behind the scenes."


Mazzilli, 49, said he wasn't always so passive. He recalled being thrown out of seven or eight games in his first year as a minor league manager, with Single-A Tampa in 1997.


"It just decreased over time," he said. "I guess I didn't learn. I got sick of paying those fines all the time. But you've got to know the umpire you're arguing with, and, sometimes, I guess you need to get thrown out, you know?"


Flanagan said there's no set number of ejections a manager should generate. Every one is different, and every one has to pick his spots. Mazzilli said he's not on a mission to have it happen.


"They know I'm fiery," he said, pointing his eyes toward the clubhouse. "They know. That's all that counts, right?"


Orioles left fielder Admin Bigbie said Mazzilli has shown players his fire behind the scenes. A typical Mazzilli meeting, Bigbie said, is usually "short and to the point."


"He's a straight shooter," Bigbie said. "If something's on his mind, he's going to call a meeting, and he's going to come in and get his point across. And some guys might look around and not know where that came from, but if he wants to address the team, he's going to do that."


Mazzilli has butted heads with players on occasion with references to the way the New York Yankees do things. He spent three years as a minor league manager in their system and the previous four seasons as the first base coach under manager Joe Torre.


"When you're used to winning, you expect to win when you come to the ballpark," said Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller. "And it really tears you up when you have a club that hasn't won for four or five years and you see a little bit of indifference to winning.


"I think that's been the hardest part for [Mazzilli] this year, because he knows we've got a lot of work to do, but he wants everybody to get on the same page. That's been a transition for him, but he's slowly but surely getting the club fired up.


"And I mean, this club's very, very close, and I think he's very, very close."



Staff changes coming?


For the Orioles, it has been a roller-coaster second half. Since early August, they have had stretches where they went 11-2, 0-12 and 6-0.


Unlike recent Orioles seasons, such as 2002, when they had a 4-32 finish, this team has been able to right itself when it looked as if it might hit rock bottom. That, Flanagan said, is when Mazzilli has done his best managing.


Angelos, who declined to comment for this article, has told associates he wasn't thrilled with some of Mazzilli's pitching decisions over the past 10 days, as the Orioles lost late-inning thrillers against the Yankees and Minnesota Twins.


But Flanagan said: "I guess what I like is he's not always by the book. And I, frankly, want to throw that book out the window most of the time. I think he's decisive, and not all moves pay off for anybody, but I think he's done a good job putting people in the right roles."


It has been suggested that the Orioles need to shake up Mazzilli's coaching staff this winter after surrounding him with Hargrove's staff. The only change so far has been Miller's replacing former pitching coach Mark Wiley in late June.


Perlozzo and first base coach Rick Dempsey interviewed for Mazzilli's job last winter, and now they're all expected to work together.


"He had a tough situation, coming in without a coach of his own, because when you sit in there, it's the loneliest job in the world," said Miller, who managed the Orioles in 1998 and 1999. "He's got to have a best friend.


"I think what people don't realize about managing is that you're your own worst critic. You go home and beat yourself to death every night.


"When you manage, it's very difficult to feel vulnerable with the people you work with. And that's why you see everybody promote their own bench coach or bring one guy with them, so that when everybody else goes home, you can sit in there and [berate] yourself."


Miller said he got a sense of that when he spoke with Mazzilli before taking the new job.


"I think he not only wanted a pitching coach, but he wanted somebody who had been there before and didn't care about doing it again."


One rumor this past weekend had the Orioles asking third base coach Tom Trebelhorn to move back into a minor league field coordinator's role, similar to the job he held from 1996 to 2000. Then, they would move Perlozzo back to third base coach and hire another veteran bench coach, with Mazzilli connections, such as Don Zimmer.


"I really don't buy it," Flanagan said. "I think that's mostly media talk. I think that's way overblown. It's a business relationship, and I think this one has melded into a very fine staff that functions extremely well."


Ultimately, it will be Angelos' call, but Mazzilli said he certainly wants to come back.


"You want to build this organization to what it was, and that's my goal," Mazzilli said. "I think we're going in the right direction considering all we've been through. And we've been through a lot."



Angelos is a poopy no-no.

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