Frank Wren's playing career ended 20 years ago after a walnut-sized brain tumor was discovered at the base of his skull. Talk about gaining some perspective. In one afternoon, his biggest worry went from proving he could play center field for the Montreal Expos to facing an operation that required doctors cut through his throat to get at a tumor that might not be removable.
Doctors did remove the tumor, and Wren has been healthy for 20 years. But he was left with bouts of double vision that forced him to retire as a player and to wear an eye patch when he took a job as a minor league coach.
It was from this unique perspective of being forced to think the unthinkable that this son of Hoosier dairy farmers began his rise in baseball circles. Perhaps because he was never quite sure how much of a career he'd have, he attacked his work as a coach, scout and team executive with the same aggressiveness that marked his playing career.
Wren would not simply have a career in baseball. He would have a great one. He would be a general manager before his 40th birthday. He would help construct great teams. He would win championships.
He flew through the Montreal system, programming himself to work in the minor league department for three years, in the scouting department for three years and in the Latin America operation for three years. By the time the Florida Marlins named him assistant general manager, he had a resume as well rounded as any in the sport.
He's bright, cocky, organized, honest and decent. He's also deeply religious, loves his wife and dotes on his twin sons. As someone who has known him for 20 years said the other day: "He's just a good guy."
The San Diego Padres were so impressed that they almost hired him as general manager in 1997. Two years later, the Baltimore Orioles did hire him.
Wren sprinted into his new job, bringing in new talent evaluators and administrators, installing a computer system and planning for the day when the Orioles would be mentioned in the same breath with the Yankees, Indians and Braves as perennial winners.
He was so organized that when Orioles owner Peter Angelos wanted to see some potential draft choices, Wren flipped open a laptop and showed him statistics and video. He was such a family man that he frequently ducked out of the office to watch his son play Little League games, while fielding calls on a cell phone. He was so honest that he never forgot the Miami reporter who once questioned his credibility in print. He was so confident that once when Angelos second-guessed him on something, he snapped: "You're not letting me do my job."
If Wren once believed Baltimore would be the place for him to make his mark, he found out otherwise. He arrived in October, and by Thanksgiving was miserable. He found the work environment so oppressive that he had trouble sleeping and gained weight. He once expressed his frustration by telling a reporter: "I'd give my World Series ring back to get away from these people."
Wren's nightmare ended Thursday when the Orioles fired him. They said his dismissal had something to do with not being able to get along with other employees and ordering the team plane to leave without Cal Ripken. In truth, Wren was fired because Angelos thought he made mistakes and didn't like him, just as he didn't like Davey Johnson, Johnny Oates, Jon Miller, Pat Gillick and others.
Virtually no one in baseball doubts that if Wren had been allowed to do his job, if Angelos and his dozens of informal advisors had just taken a step back and let Wren and his staff do their jobs, the Orioles eventually would have won. He made the Orioles better in just a year, engineering trades and overseeing a draft that brought a bounty of young pitchers to the organization.
A few weeks ago, when he believed Angelos would keep him on the job, he gushed: "We're on our way. I wouldn't trade our farm system for any in baseball right now."
Wren had been charmed by Angelos last fall even though he'd heard stories from former Orioles general manager Gillick and others that Angelos was too hands-on. Like almost every young executive with a big ego and a bright future, Wren believed things would be different for him. He believed Angelos would allow him to run the Orioles as Wren saw fit, to hire and fire people and, in the end, to bring the franchise back to the level of its storied past.
Then came the reality of the job: Angelos was pretty much his own general manager. Angelos would handle negotiations with Rafael Palmeiro and Albert Belle. Angelos would veto a trade Wren had made for catcher Todd Hundley. Angelos would order Wren to sign Delino DeShields, then criticize him because the cost was too high.
Wren remembers Angelos promising him he would be able to hire and fire the manager. When Angelos vetoed the firing of Ray Miller during the season, Wren told him he was making a mistake.
Meanwhile, Angelos was getting mad, too. He believed Wren had violated club policy by not ordering Mike Timlin and Xavier Hernandez to pass physicals before signing them. Hernandez's signing cost the Orioles a $1.75 million arbitration judgment. He believed Wren made a big mistake in wanting to obtain Hundley.
Right up until this week, Wren apparently thought he might hold on to the job long enough to gain the owner's confidence if the Orioles won. When they collapsed last April, he knew he might be in trouble. By the time he got the official word late Wednesday, he seemed more relieved than anything else.
His reputation is so good that he'll probably have his pick of jobs. If nothing else, he departs with his dignity, just as Gillick and others did. He was asked the other day if he had any regrets.
"No," he said, "I gave it my best shot."