Orioles Have to Learn To Lay Off the Change-Up
For a decade, the inmates have run the asylum at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Every year the tone of Baltimore's inert clubhouse has been undermined by an assortment of special-treatment superstars, fading veterans, clubhouse lawyers and rich but uninterested free agents. In this "players rule" world, a succession of managers with too little authority, not enough personal presence and, often, minimal front-office support have fought a fruitless battle as Baltimore has become baseball's land of pleasant losing.
Now, the Orioles are under .500 for the 10th straight season, players are complaining and moaning once more, and yet another manager's job is in jeopardy. This time, it's Sam Perlozzo who has been sniped at publicly by Jay Gibbons, Kevin Millar and Melvin Mora in the past two weeks while other players whine by text message to upper management behind his back.
Once again, when a relief pitcher torches five games in two weeks or two players scuffle in the dugout, it's the manager's fault. Welcome to dysfunctional business as usual by the Warehouse. The crazy kids run the family, not the parents. The chain of command is a pretzel. Winning and losing isn't as important as who gets the blame. And, often, the best man takes the fall.
Before the Orioles brass decides whether to dump the competent, honest Perlozzo alongside the managerial carcasses of Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove and Lee Mazzilli, it should look at the team's long dismal history of similar decisions. Since '85, a span in which Baltimore is 186 games under .500, the franchise has had 11 managers in 23 seasons. If Perlozzo doesn't survive this season, he'll be the eighth Orioles manager I've covered who got fired within months of finally furnishing his office. Johnny Oates was so fretful he didn't truly unpack his memorabilia until his third season. Perlozzo, in his 12th year with the organization and third year as manager, has seen it all.
"It is time for some continuity around here. We've had a revolving door of managers. And the results always stay the same," Perlozzo said before the Orioles left on a road trip that began last night in Kansas City. "We need to gather together and decide, 'These are our people.' A revolving door is not the answer."
The source of the clubhouse griping this season has been simple. After adding free agents Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton, the team finally has more established veterans than it has starting positions. Essentially, the Orioles have six proven but merely good players -- Huff, Payton, Gibbons, Millar, Mora and Corey Patterson -- for five positions. On a sane team, this would be good. It would be called depth. Everybody gets some rest and skips a few pitchers they can't handle. After all, none of these guys is currently a star. None would start for the Red Sox or Mets. Why shouldn't Payton give Patterson a day off in center field or Huff replace Mora at third for a while when he's in a slump? Isn't this why they invented managers?
Not in Baltimore. What's the fun of coming to Charm City if you can't make your own rules? Last week, Mora actually said that he thought Perlozzo was "rude" because the manager hadn't told him ahead of time that he wouldn't play the next day. "How can I prepare [properly] if I don't know if I'm going to play," Mora complained to reporters.
In the '70s, Davey Johnson made a similar statement when Earl Weaver was manager. Next day, Weaver told Davey: "We're going on the road for nine days. You don't have to worry about preparing." Weaver benched him the whole road trip.
Such extreme old-school ways won't work anymore. But a team still needs a sense of order and a boss. Perlozzo understands the modern middle ground. He's trying to use it. But his team doesn't get it -- yet.
"The last 10 years, we haven't had enough talent on the roster to create much competition for jobs. So, it was a gimme that you played every day. That's a terrible rut to be in and a terrible mind-set. That's how you get complacent," Perlozzo said. "Now, we've added some players. So there's competition again, like there should be. But that can be a shock to the system.
"Sooner or later, people have to come back to reality around here. You gotta play well to be in the lineup. If you're not hitting and you sit, that's not punishment. If you were playing better, you wouldn't have to worry about it. Come to the park and look at the lineup. If your name isn't in it, then look again the next day. And come prepared to play."
If the Orioles want to ensure the worst possible results, they should not give Perlozzo any public support, then continue to leave him hanging in the wind until they finally decide to fire him on a whim. Then all of baseball, after feeling bad for Sam, can shake its head and say: "Same Orioles. Never learn." Then everybody can line up to fight over hiring legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Perlozzo's best friend, who will -- just a guess -- break the world record for finding the nearest "Exit" sign.
Perlozzo's time on the hot seat may be ending. His nightmare began when the Orioles blew a 5-0 lead in the ninth inning on May 13 in Fenway Park. It became so intense during a five-game losing streak that, before the Nats series in RFK Stadium, some of those closest to Perlozzo thought he'd be fired if the team lost two of three. But the Orioles won the series, then split a homestand, stabilized at 23-27. Will panic turn back into perspective? After all, before this season, the Orioles said their goal was just to get over .500. Then, with reputation restored, they might attract top free agents. "That [goal] was if things went well," Perlozzo said. "But things didn't fall in place. We lost three starting pitchers. And our best power bat [Miguel Tejada] wasn't hot for the first two months. Not two weeks, two months."
The Orioles face a manageable schedule the next month, including 15 games against NL teams. By then, maybe the manager won't be teased with the nickname "Sammy Piñata." Even some of the inmates are starting to sound sensible. Sort of.
"It looks like we're moving toward six guys for five positions so everybody can be in the mix. That's good," Millar said. "When it becomes two guys for one position, it becomes a problem. That's not what everybody signed up for."
For too many years, too many Orioles signed up for a pleasure cruise on a big-budget, respectable, losing team. They played in a beautiful ballpark in front of forgiving fans for an owner who usually ended up exonerating them and firing the manager.
That needs to change. You can't fire the players. Especially when they earn a combined $95 million per year. But you can blame them. You can make them accountable. For the Orioles, that idea is about 10 years late.