Baltimore Orioles Manager Ray Miller leans back in his chair, props a foot on his desk and runs a hand through his graying hair.

"I love baseball," he said, "but I'd be less than honest if I said the last two years hadn't left a bitter taste in my mouth."

He's sitting at a desk with his lineup card and statistics folded neatly in front of him. It's more than two hours before game time, but Miller has already been at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for four hours. If this is a typical evening, he won't leave until after midnight. And if it's really typical, he'll need a pack of Lucky Strikes and a dozen cups of coffee to get through it.

His morning began with reports that Phil Garner is a prime candidate to manage the Orioles next season. He has read for months that General Manager Frank Wren wanted to fire him, but was blocked by owner Peter Angelos. Baltimore columnists regularly have called for his head, and after two losing seasons, Miller knows the odds of his returning aren't good.

He'd prefer to tell you he is unbothered by this kind of news. He'd prefer to tell you that after 26 years, he has seen enough to know how the game is played. He attempts to laugh as he remembers putting an arm around Oakland Manager Art Howe last season and telling him not to let a barrage of criticism bother him.

"Now he may be manager of the year," Miller said. "That's the way it goes. Joe Torre told me he'd gone from being the dumbest guy in baseball to getting a big raise every year."

Miller can't laugh because he has invested too many years. He played 10 seasons while riding buses around the minor leagues as a pitcher and then spent another 12 seasons becoming one of baseball's best pitching coaches. Joking that managers are hired to be fired does not help much.

"I've got a strong hide," he said, "but I get upset when anyone challenges my knowledge of the game or how hard I work. I've worked my tail off and so have my coaches. I feel I've made six mistakes, and four of them cost us games. After those six games, you go home and don't go to sleep. You stay awake all night replaying the game in your head."

No one should question his work ethic. He arrived before 7 most mornings in spring training and didn't leave until long after dark. Once the regular season began, he has had virtually no life outside the ballpark. Wife Judy is back in Ohio with an ailing mother, so Miller arrives early and stays late.

If this is the end, he knows what he will do. He will return to his home in New Athens, Ohio, and find something else to do with the rest of his life.

"I've had a nice career," he said. "I'm financially secure. I don't feel I've cheated the game. I've given it everything I had when I've showed up for work. I could do some of the things I never had a chance to do."

No one will remember that he never had a chance with the Orioles, who never really found out if he could do the job. Last season, the Orioles were bad because three starting pitchers went down in April, and two of them never returned. This season, the franchise fooled itself into believing it could win with a terrible bullpen and a roster devoid of speed and youth.

This is not to say Miller has been perfect. Yet, the unfortunate thing is that after 26 years in baseball, Miller may never know if he could have been a quality manager. He never had a chance in his two seasons with the Minnesota Twins and it's hard to imagine anything he could have done that would have made a difference with the Orioles the past two years.

Since the second or third week of spring training, he has known the Orioles might not be as good as they were expected to be.

Six months later, the Orioles have been worse than anyone imagined. The bullpen, led by closer Mike Timlin, has blown 20 saves. Other than Mike Mussina and Sidney Ponson, the starting rotation has been almost as bad: 16-31 with a 5.82 earned run average.

Dozens of executives and scouts around baseball shake their heads when they're told the Orioles expected to be championship contenders. They ask how they could think such a thing after letting their best run-producer, Rafael Palmeiro, escape via free agency. After failing to improve a mediocre starting rotation. And after giving Miller a roster that had virtually no flexibility.

Miller will not say any of this.

"My feeling is that the manager is supposed to promote the ballclub no matter what," he said. "That means not saying anything derisive. No matter who's struggling, you have to be optimistic and not start pointing fingers. I've tried to be honest, but I'm not going to hammer a guy in the papers. A lot of times that means saying the same things over and over, and people eventually get tired of hearing it."

Watching a proud man suffer through this terrible season has not been easy. He's asked if there weren't days when he wanted to be fired, when he wanted to simply hand Albert Belle and Will Clark to someone else and go home to plant roses and work crossword puzzles.

"No," he said emphatically. "I enjoy the game. I enjoy it every day. I like the action. I like managing. I'll admit it gets hard at times when you people keep taking shots at [me]. That's the hard part, but everyone who has ever managed has gone through it. I still love it."