When Phil Regan replaced Johnny Oates as Orioles manager five years ago, Regan was a cinch to fail. And he did. The Orioles respected Oates and wondered why on Earth the Orioles hired a 57-year-old rookie manager. Who's this Regan?

When Davey Johnson replaced Regan, Johnson was set up to succeed. And he did. Johnson's reputation was as large as Regan's was nonexistent. Orioles players wanted "a winner" to follow. They were ready to respond.

When Ray Miller replaced Johnson, Miller was set up to fail. And he did. In two years, Johnson made the Orioles his team. Ousting him was just ownership pique. Players knew it. Miller lived down to their worst fears.

Yesterday, Mike Hargrove replaced Miller as Orioles manager. Right now, he is set up to succeed. And he almost certainly will.

For the fourth time in five years, the Orioles have not merely changed managers but have gone from one extreme to the other--from the top of the barrel of experience and credentials to the bottom, then back. The Orioles have now replaced a manager who was widely viewed as weak with one who's seen as good-to-very-good.

To a rich veteran Orioles club that's quick to shift the blame to the manager's office when the losses start piling up, such perceptions are very important. Many Orioles never respected Miller for the shallowest of reasons--he wasn't a "star" like so many of them. Hiring Hargrove puts the monkey back where it belongs--on the backs of $84 million worth of players instead of the manager's back. The Orioles haven't been to the World Series since 1983. Hargrove has been to two of the last five. For now, he's sniper-proof.

A five-time .300 hitter and manager of five straight first-place Indian teams, "Grover" is a respected pro's pro. Ironically, the Orioles don't seem to know how lucky they were that Hargrove fell in their lap. Various front office types reiterated yesterday how many candidates they'd interviewed (nine) and how many were totally Grade-A (nine). What a hoot.

It's the Orioles' good fortune that, at the worst possible time, Hargrove had three of his most snake-bitten days as a manager. There's no denying that he was as responsible as anyone for Cleveland blowing a two-game lead in their division series against Boston.

Hargrove managed badly. Quite badly. If you want to live to see spring, don't ask him, "Why did you leave Ricky Rincon in to face John Valentin in Game 3?" Even Hargrove now says that may have been a mistake. As for walking Nomar Garciaparra twice in Game 5 so a right-hander could pitch to Troy O'Leary (two pitches, two homers, seven RBI), don't even go there.

It's the Orioles' double good luck that they have married Hargrove on the emotional rebound. After 20 years as an Indian, he was deeply hurt at being cast overboard as a sacrificial scapegoat.

"Want me to be honest or lie?" said Hargrove when asked if he felt he deserved to be fired. "They said, 'There comes a time for a change.' I'm a big boy. I don't agree. I don't like it. But I can accept what happened on October 15."

Hargrove paused. He never says the word "fired." He just says, "October 15." "Obviously, I remember the date," he said.

If he'd taken a year off, by next October, five teams--all rich, but none with Albert Belle or Peter Angelos in tow--would have been lined up at Hargrove's door. Friends in baseball told him to take a sabbatical as many famous, but fired, managers have done. Hargrove just couldn't do it.

"I told Mr. Angelos, 'I don't need this job. I want this job,' " Hargrove said.

That's what he thinks now. Eventually, he will probably realize that he took it out of need--emotional, not financial. At times yesterday, Hargrove clearly had trouble digesting the way his baseball life had gone from certainty to unemployment.

"It's good to be back in the big leagues, even though I was only gone for a couple of weeks," Hargrove said. Then, looking down at his new Orioles jacket, he said, "I never thought I'd be wearing the orange-and-black. . . . [But] the reality is I am a Baltimore Oriole. The Indians? It's history. It's past."

How much can Hargrove actually help the Orioles? Baseball's conventional wisdom holds that changing managers is more cosmetic than substantive: You can't fire the players. However, in the Orioles' case, this rule of thumb that a manager is only worth a very few games may not hold. In the '90s, every time Baltimore switched managers, its fortunes changed radically--and in the way that might have been expected.

Oates inherited a dismal .414 team. In his three full years as manager, the Orioles suddenly improved to .544--the kind of 88-win pace associated with a marginal contender. Sorry, not enough. Off with his head. In came Regan. The team instantly sank under .500 (71-73), playing almost exactly the way it has the last two seasons under Miller. As soon as Johnson replaced Regan, the Orioles averaged 93 wins in two seasons--a 15-win leap.

Replacing the worst manager on Earth with the best skipper should not be worth 15 wins a year, or even 10. Countless other variables contributed to the Orioles' vagaries in the '90s. Still, there it is. Under two ex-pitching coaches, one with no managerial credentials, the Orioles have had three losing years. Under two respected managers with proper pedigrees, they've played entertaining .525-to-.605 ball.

Hargrove fits squarely into the Oates and Johnson mold. In fact, Hargrove may be calmer and more self-assured than Oates and less abrasive than Johnson. What's reassuring for exasperated Orioles fans is that every time ownership's money has been combined with proven managerial leadership, the Orioles have been a solid winner.

"When I look at the Orioles [problems] I see some very fixable things," Hargrove said. "We can be very competitive very soon."

If any of the other eight Orioles candidates had stepped forward to say such a thing, they'd have deserved a laugh. Recent Orioles history, however, suggests that Hargrove is probably right. Someday, Camden Yards fans may look back on 1999 and think of the Orioles' MVP as Troy O'Leary.