On Sunday, after the Orioles' final game of a torturous season, Ray Miller said goodbye and shook hands like a manager who'd already been fired. Not, "See you in spring training." But "so long, thanks for everything."

Of his imminent demise, Miller said, "We'll know within 72 hours" since the Orioles had three days to exercise an option on his 2000 contract. Miller even stayed in Baltimore, waiting, like the ultimate good servant, for the phone call that would tell him his services were no longer required.

Then, a strange thing happened. On Monday, Miller's phone didn't ring. Power outage? Batteries dead? Forget to pay Bell Atlantic? He was puzzled.

Then, yesterday, the phone didn't ring again. No messages on his tape, either. Not a single, "This is Peter. Sorry, can't do lunch. Where would you like us to forward your mail?"

"I'm confused," I said to Miller yesterday, after the 48th hour had passed.

"Me, too," said Miller. "We'll know by 4:30 [Wednesday]."

Now, Orioles fans are left to ponder deep questions: What is the meaning of no phone ringing? If a cell phone rings in the woods and no one hears it, are you still the manager? Finally, the biggest question: Who stole Angelos's Rolodex? Everybody thought firing a manager was as simple as "Dial M for Miller."

Is it possible that the manager with nine lives--The Skipper From The Crypt--is at it again? Every hour Miller's chance of returning is shooting higher. Already, it's gone from a billion to one to a mere million to one.

The Orioles wouldn't just leave Miller hanging for 72 hours without even a farewell to a loyal employee, would they? No, that's the only unthinkable scenario. Not even the Orioles have fallen that far. Who would work for a team like that? If you were Phil Garner, Jim Riggleman or Don Baylor, wouldn't you go into a manager relocation program before you'd sign up with such a callow outfit?

Of course, the Orioles may already have moved into that leper franchise category, just as George Steinbrenner's Yankees did in the '80s. The grapevine says Garner, fired by the Brewers, wants the Houston job if Larry Dierker retires and that Buddy Bell, fired by the Tigers, likes the air in Colorado. Even recycled good old boys aren't fighting for the Orioles job.

Jim Leyland retired because he was disgusted with modern players. Think he wants to come back for the rare honor of managing Albert Belle, who had a public cussing match in the dugout with Miller? Riggleman just got fired by the Cubs and he grew up in Maryland as an Orioles and Nats fan. But his pitching coach is former fired Orioles manager Phil Regan. Think the Vulture might have some harrowing tales to tell?

One reason the Orioles may not be in a hurry to fire Miller is that nobody is in a hurry to replace him. Let's be blunt. Every candidate is a retread with a managerial record no better, and in some cases, worse than Miller. Garner and Baylor are great guys. But that goes for Miller, too. Riggleman fits the same mold: a dedicated, salt-of-the-earth lifer.

But none of them has the distinguished career winning percentage or the multiple postseason appearances or the current stature in the game of a really first-rate manager like, say, Johnny Oates or Davey Johnson. Oops, the Orioles already fired them, didn't they?

We're forced to entertain ourselves with the slim but delicious possibility that Miller--one of baseball's best pitching coaches, but, to all available evidence, not one of its good managers--might survive again!

Consider Miller's record already this year. He's harder to cancel than Jerry Springer. Miller wasn't fired after his team lost to Cuba, although some Yankees said the Orioles' lack of effort disgraced the game. Nor was Miller dismissed after his bullpen blew 20 saves by the all-star break. Nothing points at a manager's skill more directly than his bullpen.

Miller kept his job after the incident with Belle. He stayed after he questioned the "courage" of his veteran players and disgustedly referred questions after a defeat to "the ones making all the money. Have them explain how they performed in front of 47,000 people." Talk about distancing yourself from your own players.

When General Manager Frank Wren recommended to Angelos that Miller be fired, it was Wren who ended up on thin ice for a while. Not long ago, Wren reiterated that it was hard to justify keeping a manager whose team had flashy stats, but a losing record. Last month, Miller called his own team "dysfunctional." This guy didn't just burn his bridges in the clubhouse; he blew up all the roads that led to the bridges.

Miller has punched walls, pulled his hair, raged at umpires and even, in desperation, tried the laid-back approach. Nothing worked. Appropriately, the Orioles were shut out in their last two games. Yet, Miller is still, technically, standing. Has Angelos opted for the ultimate punishment for everybody who has annoyed him this season--his players, the media and even his own general manager? Would he nuke 'em all with Rabbit Redux?

Naaaah.

The simplest explanation is probably the best. Given a choice between doing things in a crisp, professional way, or operating in an eccentric, disorganized fashion, the Orioles are, as usual, experimenting with all their options. Screwy and muddled seems to be winning.

Only one eventuality would truly make this a memorable, though bitter, piece of baseball lore. Miller, after 36 years of service in the sport, has waited in Baltimore for 72 hours just to make himself available to be fired in the proper fashion. If the Orioles don't have the backbone or the manners to call him, it will be noted, and not soon forgotten, throughout the game.