A Heavy Meddle Record
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, October 8, 1999; Page D1
The sorrow spread around baseball yesterday as news of Frank Wren's firing by the Orioles rippled outward from Camden Yards like concentric circles on a lake after a body is dumped overboard with the feet in a concrete slab.
Once again, the Orioles lost a valuable employee. Once again, the obvious reason was that the Oriole in question had run smack up against owner Peter Angelos. So, somebody had to go. Guess who?
Once again, as in the cases of announcer Jon Miller three years ago and manager Davey Johnson two years ago, the Orioles immediately embarked on a campaign to smear the reputation of their ex-employee and convince fans that one of their favorites was, in fact, a very bad fellow.
The Orioles accused Miller of wanting to skip town for the big bucks in San Francisco, despite the announcer's protestations that he wanted to stay in Baltimore forever. To this day, the view in baseball on this basic issue of truth telling stands overwhelmingly with Miller. The announcer got canned for being too candid and critical for the tastes of ownership.
The Orioles concocted a veritable "War and Peace" of reasons for accepting Johnson's "resignation." They even tried to impugn the charitable works of Johnson's wife, whose long history of good deeds should have put her above such ballpark gutter fighting. Johnson's problem was that he was his own man and insisted on being treated with respect. Kiss of death.
Now, listen to the attack in an Orioles press release on Wren. "The episode" that led to Wren's firing to hear the Orioles tell it was a case of the general manager being mean to Cal Ripken. The third baseman was late for a team charter flight to the West Coast on Sept. 17. He called to say he'd be there soon. Wren took off without Cal.
"Cal was then forced to make his own cross-country travel arrangements," wrote the Orioles, including horrors actually being forced to change planes in Las Vegas! Kind of reminds you of the misery of the Taiwanese earthquake victims, doesn't it? Of course, with his $7 million salary, maybe Ripken could have just leased himself a 747.
These harsh assessments of Wren did not come from owner Peter Angelos, mind you. Oh, no. Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Joe Foss made all the press-release charges against Wren, calling the GM "arbitrary and inflexible" and guilty of "defiantly dismissing our concerns" as "silly."
For the record, lots of rich ballplayers who missed flights, for whatever reasons, have been left behind to make their own arrangements. At least that's how it's done on teams with some discipline. Even to the Cal Ripkens.
"The Orioles management cannot and will not abide having a general manager operate in such an unreasonable, authoritarian manner and treat anyone in this way, especially someone such as Cal who has done so much . . . " Etc, etc.
Oh, golly. Another blood feud between a competent self-respecting Orioles employee and the team's owner. Now there's a novel story line. Of course, trying to be the boss's friend doesn't always save the old job either. Ask Ray Miller.
In one final delicious twist, Foss noted that Wren had made "extremely negative comments about various personnel. After first rejecting any need to apologize to these people, he agreed to apologize to three of these individuals, but refused to apologize to a fourth."
Let's see if we have this straight. Wren is the boss. Not some flunky, but the GM. He rips four people in the organization during a season in which a team with an $84 million payroll loses 84 games. Wren should have made "extremely negative comments" about everybody on the payroll including the Bird. That's his job. Instead, the boss is ordered to apologize?
Of course, the real issue in all this is that the Orioles' GM was utterly and completely cut out of the process of deciding whether Miller should have been fired. He was the last to know.
Instead of stripping Wren of his authority and making him "apologize" for his opinions, the Orioles should have realized that they had a crackerjack young GM. Cocky? Yes. Protective of his prerogatives, much like Johnson? Yes, that, too. Sick of being jerked around and distrusted by the owner and management executives, rather than supported by them? Yes. But that's often the price of talent. It often demands respect and room to operate. On the Orioles, respect is strictly a one-way street.
Sometimes a franchise is lucky enough to employ one of the fresh, energetic minds in its field like Wren or before him, Doug Melvin, Kevin Malone or John Hart. Sometimes, a team is fortunate enough to have one of the sport's wise old heads in charge of its fortunes like Roland Hemond or Pat Gillick. In the 1990s the Orioles have had an abundance of both types.
Yet, in every case, some of the best organizational minds in the sport have been fired, neglected or driven away so that they could bring success to other teams. No one misses the irony in the Orioles' plight.
"[General Manager] Doug Melvin is in the playoffs again in Texas," said one long-time member of the Oriole family. "[General Manager] Roland Hemond is pretty happy out in Arizona. [General Manager] John Hart may get the Indians into the World Series again. Have I missed anybody?"
Yes. Pretty soon, General Manager Kevin Malone will probably have the Dodgers back in the playoffs with Johnson as his manager.
Meanwhile, as yesterday's shenanigans epitomized, the Orioles have become a situation comedy. Life is just one long sequence of Jerry Springer outtakes. Hardly an October now passes without the same angry "you're fired . . . no, I quit" dialogue reverberating through the Warehouse with only the expletives changed.
In the aftermath of these of these tragi-comic Oriole earthquakes, the entire baseball community shakes its head in disbelief, mixed with sadness. As one former Orioles general manager said to me this spring, "You are watching the destruction of one of the great franchises in sports."
Many will say that, with no general manager, no manager, little credibility within the sport and a fan base that needs a cast-iron stomach to keep rooting for the team, the Orioles can't possibly go any lower.
Don't bet on it.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company