From the comfort of Mike Hargrove's seat in the Cleveland Indians' dugout and his customary perch atop the American League standings last season, the Baltimore Orioles looked like a team he wouldn't want to get near for fear something toxic might rub off on him. The Orioles had an aging roster full of volatile personalities, a bullpen full of retreads, an ownership with a growing reputation for meddlesome egomania and, as far as Hargrove could see, a lack of direction on the field.

At the same time, Hargrove's powerful Indians were cruising toward a fifth consecutive Central Division title, and Hargrove was completing his 20th consecutive season in the Indians' organization, the last 8 1/2 of which had been as manager. The Indians were as much a part of Hargrove as his Texas Panhandle drawl.

These days, Hargrove, 50, still gets a chuckle out of the tumultuous sequence of events--the Indians' playoff collapse against Boston, the Orioles' decision to fire Ray Miller as manager, the Indians' sudden decision to fire Hargrove--that somehow ended on Nov. 3 with Hargrove signing a three-year, $3 million contract to be the Orioles' 14th manager.

But in the hierarchy of Hargrove's emotions as he navigates this hectic winter of upheaval, ironic amusement is far down the list. He is still dealing with the lingering anger over his firing in Cleveland, a feeling that crops up any time he allows himself to think about it. At the same time, his coming stewardship of the Orioles has engendered feelings--which appear to be genuine--of enthusiasm and optimism.

"I think it can be a very good year," Hargrove said. "After being inside the [Orioles'] organization for a month now, I've seen that it's an organization with a clear idea of where it wants to go. Not just in hiring me--that vision has been there and is ongoing. The people from the ownership on down are deeply committed to the Orioles and very serious about providing Baltimore with a winning team."

The Orioles an organization with a definite direction? That's a far different image than what Hargrove glimpsed from across the field last season.

Lingering Anger

The Hargrove household in the hilly, woodsy suburbs of Cleveland, where on this day the first snowfall of the season is pouring out of the sky, appears to be chugging along smoothly, if a bit chaotic in a post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas sort of way.

A Christmas tree stands half-decorated in the corner of the living room. The outdoor icicle lights, which Hargrove had spent the previous day putting up, for some reason would not turn on when he flipped the switch--"I felt like Clark Griswald up on that ladder," he says in reference to a Chevy Chase movie character. Cars and SUVs fill the driveway, and from time to time the front door opens and a Hargrove schoolchild (he and Sharon have five, ages 10 to 24) or a delivery person enters the room bearing armfuls of stuff.

Hargrove himself has a flight to catch later in the evening--he's headed back to Baltimore to participate in the interviewing of potential pitching coaches. The feeling of upheaval is lessened somewhat by the Hargroves' decision to remain living outside of Cleveland for the time being.

The Hargroves were as settled in their chosen home as anyone with Mike's job description is allowed to be. Sharon, whom Mike met in seventh grade in Perryton, Tex., is a community figure, active in local charities. Their son, Andy, is a promising pitcher at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, for whom he threw a no-hitter last season.

It was easy to imagine themselves staying there forever, with Mike ending his career with the Indians. But that all changed on Oct. 15, when Hargrove was called into the office of Indians General Manager John Hart at 2:30 in the afternoon, and was told he had been fired.

Even now, several weeks later, Hargrove's face turns red when talking about it.

"I don't know of any manager ever getting fired after winning 97 games," Hargrove says defensively. "But then again, I don't know of any manager who was rumored to be fired as often as I was over the course of 8 1/2 years. . . . I don't hold grudges. But if I think about it, I get very angry about it."

"If Mike is bitter," says Hart, who promoted Hargrove to manager in 1991, "I think it's understandable. . . . It wasn't because we lost in the first round that we had to make a change. It was a failure on the part of the entire organization, not just Mike. I've used the term 'a new voice.' In professional sports, it's difficult to stay cutting-edge in the same franchise with the same players for a long period of time."

Hargrove was so hurt by the firing that he felt the need to drive around alone for hours before collecting himself to face the media. With $600,000 left on his contract for 2000, Hargrove could have been paid to do nothing, and he admits the thought crossed his mind.

"It would have been very easy for me to stay at home for a year [after being fired]," he says. "But I feel very good about the opportunity the Orioles have given me. But that doesn't do anything to take away the anger I feel about being fired here."

A funny thing happened after the firing. After enduring years of rumors about his job security and constant criticism for not getting the Indians over the playoff hump--despite the five straight division titles, the Indians failed to win a World Series, losing to Atlanta in 1995 and Florida in 1997--Hargrove was pleasantly surprised to find that public and media sentiment was firmly on his side.

The culprit, most people now seemed to believe, was not Hargrove's managing, but Hart's inability to secure the front-line starting pitcher the Indians needed to beat the New York Yankees. At last year's trade deadline, Hart considered a deal that would have sent prospects Russell Branyan, Enrique Wilson and David Riske to the Anaheim Angels for left-hander Chuck Finley. At the last minute, Hart pulled out, opting to stand pat.

"That's the sentiment of the fans; I don't know that that's the reason we lost," Hargrove says. "We've been short on starting pitching while I've been here. We haven't had that one horse. Boston beat us because they had Pedro Martinez, simple as that."

Hart defends the team he assembled. "We opened the year with nine all-stars," he says. "It's an extremely talented team. I would've loved to have signed a Randy Johnson, but our budget doesn't allow us to spend limitlessly. You look at our run, I think we have supplied tremendous talent to this franchise."

As for the Indians' perpetually one-arm-shy pitching staff, Hart argues that Bartolo Colon developed into a true number one starter, and that Colon, Charles Nagy and Dave Burba were "a pretty good 1-2-3" combination, with the struggles of Jaret Wright being "the one disappointment."

"Part of my response [to the criticism], too, is the long-term view," Hart says. "At times there just isn't a deal to make at the trade deadline, and sometimes you can't do it without giving away too much of your future."

The "time-for-a-change" argument is backed by a number of Indians players who criticized Hargrove anonymously following the Boston debacle and, later, when Hargrove was fired.

"The last thing I'm going to do is say anything negative about Mike Hargrove," Hart says.

But Hargrove's anger goes beyond that of simply a man who has been fired. Pressed about it, Hargrove admits there is more, but won't disclose it. Privately, however, he has told people close to him that he believes Hart had been out to get him for years, but was rebuffed once by Indians owner Richard E. Jacobs and at other times by a last-minute change of heart.

Which, of course, presents the ironic possibility that Hart's perceived inability to pull the trigger on big personnel moves--which ultimately, many believe, contributed to Hargrove's downfall--also kept Hargrove in his job for as long as it did.

Hart denies this. "No, [Jacobs] never vetoed anything," he said. "Every year, I evaluate the manager, just as [Jacobs] evaluates me. That's a part of what my job is. This year, we felt it was time for a change."

"John Hart does a very good job of being a GM," Hargrove says. "Does he do a good job all the time? No, but nobody does. All I know is, taking the personalities out of it, I feel good about where the Indians have come under my leadership. Was I a scapegoat? What manager isn't?"

Baltimore's Zoo

Taking over as manager of the Baltimore Orioles at the tail-end of the 20th century is not so much a matter of stepping in and feeling your way around. It's more a matter of stripping away the layers of dysfunction until there is a workable core, then rebuilding.

There are things you simply have to accept about the job. The majority owner, Peter Angelos, takes a hands-on approach. At present, the Orioles have no general manager, but a committee of "baseball operations" heads, led by director of player personnel Syd Thrift, in whom the day-to-day running of the team is entrusted. Whether the system will remain this way and whether it works remain to be seen.

Turnover has become a way of life during the Angelos regime. Hargrove is the Orioles' fifth manager since 1994, and he will be working with the fourth baseball-operations chief, Thrift, in that same period of time.

Then there's the clubhouse, which has been described as a working caste system. There are things Hargrove will have to accept there, too, even if they run up against what he believes in as a manager.

Peel back the poisoned layers and find a workable core. He can't do anything about Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson staying in hotels separate from the team (it is stated in their contracts), but he can do something about those stretch limos that show up at the airport in each city, ready to spirit them away.

Likewise, he can't do anything about many of Albert Belle's peculiarities. But he can do something about Belle's insistence on skipping batting practice the entire second half of last season.

"That has to change," Hargrove says firmly, when told that Belle normally headed to the inside batting cages following stretching, never bothering to shag flies in the outfield. "We're going to have to talk about that. . . .

"I don't have a problem with guys not taking batting practice, as long as it doesn't become a habit and as long as they have permission from me or one of my coaches."

Funny thing about any long conversation with Hargrove concerning the Orioles. It always ends up coming back to Albert.

They are practically intertwined now. Hargrove was Belle's first professional manager, in 1987 with the Indians' Class A team in Kinston, N.C., which also happened to be Hargrove's first managing job.

They were reunited in Cleveland in 1991, when Hart promoted Hargrove from first-base coach and Belle was a promising second-year player.

Together, they helped turn the Indians from a team that lost 105 games in 1991 to a team that won 100 in 1995. But Belle's increasingly unstable behavior--like his public cussing-out of NBC reporter Hannah Storm in the dugout, and the time he smashed the clubhouse thermostat with a bat because teammates kept turning it up--made him more of a burden for Hargrove than a boon.

Hargrove admits he was "not unhappy" when Belle left the Indians after the 1996 season, having exercised a clause in his contract that made him a free agent.

"I never disliked Albert," Hargrove said. "I disliked some of the things he did. And I'm sure there were things I did that he did not like. But before he left [Cleveland], I think we came to trust each other."

Hargrove says he has not spoken to Belle since being named the Orioles' manager, but that he plans to start calling all the players soon. Belle has repeatedly turned down interview requests this offseason.

Having been around Belle for seven years, Hargrove has developed a realistic view of the best way of dealing with "the Belle issue": Begin with the premise that Belle is different, unusual and given to a number of perplexing idiosyncrasies. Hargrove's task?

Strip away the layers of distraction until there is a workable core.

"My job with Albert," Hargrove says, "is to give him every chance to be totally unencumbered mentally going into a game or into a season. The best thing you can do with Albert is try to call him into the office one-on-one maybe three, four, five times a year. I have learned not to talk publicly about anything he does. He believes strongly that things should stay in the clubhouse. I didn't understand that at one time."

At some point before the season, Hargrove says, he will approach Belle about the batting-practice participation. It could be an early benchmark of the state of their relationship.

"I'm concerned about how he'll take it, yes," Hargrove says. "But I've never known Albert to not be amenable to at least talking about something in a private setting."

Changing His Game

Asked about his view of the 1999 Orioles, Hargrove gets a pained look on his face. He saw the Orioles at their worst in 1999. The Indians beat them nine times in 10 games, with the Orioles crashing spectacularly in most of them.

"First of all, I like Ray," Hargrove begins. "From the other dugout looking in, it was a team that seemed to have lost its way. Sometimes when the ship is adrift. . . . Well, it was a team that had lost its focus and its direction, which is usually a direct result of leadership."

But if it's true that Miller lost the Orioles' clubhouse last season, some Indians players privately said the same thing about Hargrove in Cleveland.

Hart thinks Hargrove will be "re-energized" by the change of settings. "I think his managing is a lot like his person," Hart says. "He is a man of fabulous character. Mike has the ability to know what he wants to do with the ballclub he has. He is never guilty of overmanaging a team."

With a chance to start over in Baltimore, with a clean slate and the benefit of using all his accumulated wisdom to fill it, Hargrove seems to have a grasp on what he needs to improve about himself. And at the risk of sounding too new-agey, Hargrove's watchword seems to be "communication."

When Hargrove strips away the layers of his own hardened shell, accumulated over 8 1/2 mostly comfortable years in Cleveland, he realizes that maybe he let himself get soft in this crucial area. And he knows what to do about it.

Hargrove played for 10 managers in a 12-year playing career, mostly in Texas and Cleveland. "And every one of them, to one degree or another, said they had an open door, and that they could always be approached at any time," he says. "But it didn't happen. I know I only went in there maybe two times my entire career. Players don't like to go in there. There's something official about stepping through that door. So you have to be out there with them. You have to approach them. Make yourself available outside the office.

"There were times in Cleveland when I wasn't available enough. I see a lot of room for improvement on my part. I'm sure some players thought I was uncommunicative and distant. There has to be some distance between the manager and players. But sometimes I think I fell short. I'm not going to let that happen again."