-- His Baltimore Orioles teams have averaged 94 losses the past three seasons, yet he has never lost control of the clubhouse. Last year, his team stumbled to baseball's worst finish -- 4-32 -- in more than a century, but he never blamed the players or decried the lack of talent he was given. Late in the season, he reportedly found out he was being backstabbed by his immediate boss, but he never called the team's owner to complain.

Mike Hargrove earns almost universal praise from both his players and the Orioles' new management. But with his fourth spring training with the Orioles underway this week, he has been left dangling in the final year of his contract while the organization, after a winter of upheaval, addresses more immediate matters.

"Sure, I think about it," said Hargrove, who will make $1 million this season in the final year of a four-year contract. "I don't dwell on it. Yeah, I'd rather do it sooner than later, but I also know we have a job to do. And if I concentrate on the job, [the contract] will take care of itself. If I had my druthers, I'd do it right now. But I also understand not doing it now."

The Orioles' new front-office tandem of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, who were hired in December to replace Syd Thrift, has been careful to express confidence in Hargrove while still not setting a timetable to address his contract status.

"There were certain things we felt were already done when we started," Flanagan said, "and one of them was having Hargrove under contract for the season. So we focused on things that needed immediate attention, like the minor leagues, free agency, playing personnel, non-playing personnel, Latin America. We're not saying we don't consider Mike a priority, but at least he was under contract for the whole season. I'm sure at some point it's going to be addressed."

As yet, there have been no discussions with Hargrove, formal or informal, concerning an extension, leading to speculation that the team's performance in the early part of the season will determine his future. The Orioles have never fired a manager in midseason under owner Peter Angelos, who bought the team in 1993.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't anticipate [the team's early-season performance] to be an issue," Flanagan said. "One of Mike's strengths is that he has always been a very flexible manager. He's managed great talent in Cleveland, and he's managed in a rebuilding process in Cleveland. Some managers can only handle veteran teams, or only rookies. Mike has been able to do both."

It seems nearly impossible to evaluate Hargrove's performance in 2002, given the extreme variances in the team's success from April to mid-August and its utter failure over the final six weeks. The Orioles were 63-63 on Aug. 23, prompting some to promote Hargrove for manager of the year consideration, but the 4-32 finish obliterated any remaining optimism.

"It's hard [to judge Hargrove] because you don't forget the negative finish to the season," Flanagan said, "but you also don't forget the fact this team overachieved for 51/2 months."

Flanagan, who often studied such things in his previous job as a broadcaster, points out Hargrove's performance last season in games decided by one or two runs: The Orioles won 35 such games (35-36), only two fewer than the New York Yankees (37-25).

"That's one of the ways you grade a manager -- tight games, games decided by two runs or fewer," Flanagan said. "And his record was nearly as good as Joe Torre's."

As a color commentator for Orioles television before being named vice president of baseball operations in December, Flanagan enjoyed a close, friendly relationship with Hargrove, often spending an hour or more in Hargrove's office before and after games.

"I know I'm real comfortable with Mike, and Jim's real comfortable with Mike," Flanagan said. "He has had a lot of input with us. When we've made moves, we have run stuff by him first. I can't speak for the previous [front-office regime], but I don't think that was the case."

Hargrove's relationship with Thrift was already shaky, according to team sources, when word got back to Hargrove in September that Thrift had been criticizing him to a rival general manager during a road trip. The story has since been confirmed by two Orioles sources. After finding out about the comments, Hargrove confronted Thrift when the team returned to Baltimore, and Thrift denied it.

"I've never been one to take my troubles to someone else," said Hargrove, when asked why he never took the matter to Angelos. "I addressed that issue with the person who was responsible for it, and I never felt the need to call Mr. Angelos with that. I believe in loyalty. I believe in giving loyalty and receiving loyalty. There are certain things a person should take care of themselves and I tried to that, right or wrong."

Thrift, reached today by phone, said his relationship with Hargrove was "outstanding."

"There's a verse that says, 'Put your hands to the plow,' " Thrift said. "Look forward, not back. I'm not looking back. The past is the past."

Hargrove's predilection for sticking to the company line and his aversion to publicly criticizing others has earned him praise by his backers as a "stand-up guy," while critics have viewed him as too soft. His discreetness extends even to Thrift, whom he will not disparage publicly -- although one can infer from his comments regarding Beattie and Flanagan a lack of remorse over Thrift's unceremonious dismissal.

"Anytime you get new management, you get new leadership, and that's good," Hargrove said. "I don't mean to speak ill of prior management, but anytime new people come in there's new energy and a new direction. And we've seen that since the time Mike and Jim were named."

Orioles Note: The team settled its final pending arbitration case, agreeing with Melvin Mora on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million. The Orioles settled with all five of their arbitration-eligible players.

Orioles' Mike Flanagan, left, Jim Beattie, Manager Mike Hargrove have not discussed contract extension.