In early May, during the Cleveland Indians' only trip this season to Baltimore, Indians hitting coach and Orioles legend Eddie Murray seemed resigned to the thought he would never get a big league managing job.
He was coming off a winter in which a potential opportunity to manage the Orioles -- he was widely viewed as the leading candidate entering the interview phase -- failed to materialize. The Orioles hired Lee Mazzilli instead and Murray was left embittered by the experience.
At the same time, the Indians were foundering near last place in the American League Central, with their slew of young hitters struggling under Murray's watch.
Three months later, the Indians are hovering on the edges of the playoff race, those young hitters are producing eye-popping numbers and Murray may have revived his managerial hopes.
Look at all the career years taking place in the Indians' lineup. Ronnie Belliard, a career .266 hitter, is hitting .298 and last month earned his first all-star berth. Casey Blake (who is remembered in Baltimore for a bizarre week-long stint at the end of the 2001 season) is hitting .273 (20 points above his career average) with a career-high 18 homers.
Victor Martinez is hitting .301 with 17 homers in his first full season in the majors; he, too, was an all-star. And Travis Hafner has put together a monster season, with a .325 average (73 points above his career average) and 21 homers.
"It's a combination of factors," said Chris Antonetti, the Indians' assistant general manager. "It's the maturity of young hitters getting acclimated to the big leagues. And it's also the influence of Eddie Murray -- not only in regards to the fundamentals of hitting, but also what to look for as a hitter and how pitchers are trying to get you out. He provides some very perceptive insights into hitting.
"As a team, collectively, it's been a big step forward, and Eddie has been an integral part of it."
The Indians probably won't be playing in October -- they are six games behind Minnesota in the AL Central and five back in the wild-card chase, the blame for which falls mostly on a bullpen that has blown more saves than it has converted. But there is optimism in Cleveland for the first time in years.
As for Murray, he has been very careful in his public statements not to blast the Orioles, which may pay dividends should the team fires Mazzilli after this season, as has been widely speculated, if the team's play does not improve significantly.
And if that happens, one would expect Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a fervent Murray backer, to have more of a say in the next managerial choice than he did with Mazzilli, who was handpicked by the front office and taken to Angelos for approval.
The Right Choice
Carl Pavano's development into a front-line starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins -- he improved to 12-4 with a 3.21 ERA on Thursday night -- serves as belated vindication for Jim Beattie, the onetime Montreal Expos GM who was pilloried for years for trading away Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox in 1997 for Pavano and Tony Armas Jr.
However, Beattie, now with the Orioles, refuses to gloat over Pavano's late-blooming excellence.
"When you trade for young pitching, you never know when they're going to break through," Beattie said of Pavano, who became a first-time all-star this year at age 28. "He had a lot of injuries through the years. He always had the stuff -- just like Tony Armas always had the stuff. They have to stay healthy, and [Pavano] just didn't."
Beattie has always stood by the trade, which over the years has looked worse and worse on the surface, as Martinez has piled up Cy Young Awards.
"Look at the circumstances," Beattie said. "We knew we had to trade him, and we knew we had to get some pitching. We had to take some chances. And we couldn't spend money on pitching. We had to get low-priced guys. We got the best minor league pitcher in baseball [in Pavano]. He was rated number one across the board."
At the time, the Red Sox allowed Beattie to choose between Pavano and right-hander Brian Rose. While Pavano has developed into a potential ace (albeit belatedly), Rose has not been seen in the majors since 2000.
"At least we picked the right player there," Beattie said.
Beattie acknowledges having a soft spot in his heart for Pavano -- who is eligible for free agency after the season -- so keep an eye on the Orioles this winter. If the Marlins allow Pavano to get away, don't be surprised if Beattie tries to land him again.
Around the League
Since the Orioles traded right-handed pitching prospect Denny Bautista to the Kansas City Royals for 37-year-old reliever Jason Grimsley, Bautista has gone 3-2 with a 2.63 ERA for Class AA Wichita. However, he was recently passed over for a promotion in favor of Jimmy Serrano. . . .
Part of the Arizona Diamondbacks' grand plan involves re-signing injured slugger Richie Sexson, who is eligible to become a free agent at season's end. However, they should not count on it happening. Sexson, who has missed almost the entire season following shoulder surgery, is sounding hesitant to come back.
"I've lost 100 games for about four years in a row now," Sexson told reporters this week. "I'm not saying they're going to do that this year, but I've played on some bad teams in Milwaukee. So yeah, that's something that definitely has to be looked at." . . .
At the height of their powers as the best trio of starting pitchers in the game, Atlanta's John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine never combined for more than 11 wins in a single month. Amazing, then, to consider that Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Jaret Wright combined to go 14-0 with a 1.87 ERA in July.