Taking a Hard Look
Manager Mazzilli, Disappointing Orioles Under Owner Angelos's Scrutiny
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page D01
On May 25, about an hour before the Baltimore Orioles were to face the New York Yankees for the first time this season, Manager Lee Mazzilli told then-pitching coach Mark Wiley he wanted to run the standard pre-series pitchers' meeting himself. Putting aside advance scouting reports, Mazzilli, a Yankees coach from 2000 to 2003, stood before the Orioles' pitchers, described the tendencies of each Yankees hitter and dictated how each should be pitched to.
The Orioles were 20-20 at the time, still in third place, still within five games of the division lead. But the Yankees swept an ugly three-game series and battered the Orioles for 41 runs.
In many ways, the Orioles have not recovered; they were swept again by the Yankees in New York a week later, finished with the worst record in the majors in June (8-19), and when the first half ended Sunday, were 37-48 and in last place, 17 1/2 games back -- their worst first-half finish in five years. It was a sobering development for a team that fancied itself on the verge of contention.
The second half of the Orioles' season, which begins Thursday night with the first of four games at Tampa Bay, is charged with tension as speculation, inside and outside the organization, has begun that Mazzilli, in his first year as a big league manager, may be in danger of losing his job at season's end, if not sooner.
Owner Peter Angelos, after casting himself in recent years as a hands-off owner who no longer meddles in baseball operations, has stepped back in recently, according to several team sources. After spending over $120 million on free agents in the offseason, he has publicly challenged Mazzilli and is growing increasingly frustrated with pitching ace Sidney Ponson.
While Mazzilli is only halfway into his first season, already one critical component of a manager's security -- his hold over his players' faith -- is in question, as two veteran Orioles, neither of whom would agree to be identified, said last week that Mazzilli has lost the clubhouse.
"A couple of things frustrate guys in the clubhouse. I will say that," said Ponson, who declined to elaborate.
Many of the reasons for the team's first-half slide were obvious: a young starting rotation that has struggled amid injuries and inconsistency; a rash of injuries to key players such as Melvin Mora and Jay Gibbons; an offense that, while powerful enough to rank fifth in the league in hitting (.280), is batting .255 (next to last in the league) with runners in scoring position.
"I don't know too many teams that have lost guys in the middle of their lineup and their rotation all at once," Mazzilli said. "If we had our whole team out there in the first half, I think we'd be right on target."
However, upon closer examination, the first half of the season has shown the Orioles to have other issues -- from an owner who still dictates critical personnel moves, to a two-person front office that has alienated several key players with questionable personnel moves, to a new manager who was not allowed to choose his coaches and rarely consults the ones he was given.
Dysfunction pervades the lineup in that Mazzilli is forced to play two second basemen at once -- Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts -- a seemingly harmless quirk that nonetheless has major consequences. Among them: several costly mistakes on defense with Hairston playing unfamiliar positions in the outfield, and a dangerous workload for catcher Javy Lopez, who on many days was blocked from an easier stint as designated hitter by the fact Mazzilli needed to use Hairston there.
Last week, before the team signed a third catcher to lighten the load, Lopez acknowledged to The Post he was fearful his knees "are gonna explode" from the workload.
Angelos has publicly challenged Mazzilli and his staff to turn the team around. Angelos has said the pieces are in place -- including Lopez, all-star shortstop Miguel Tejada and veteran first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, all of whom were signed as free agents this winter -- for the team to contend.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company