Long ago in Little League, Sam Perlozzo would be in his uniform at 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game. "Then I'd go to the candy store so everybody could see me," Perlozzo said. "I'd take a nickel and spend an hour in that store in my uniform deciding what to buy."
In a sense, Perlozzo has stood in uniform, face pressed to the candy store window, ever since. Now, at 54, in one of those moments of pure baseball justice, Perlozzo is being allowed inside. The candy's all his now. He's manager of the Baltimore Orioles, at least for the last 55 games of this season. Nobody ever deserved a turn at the wheel more than Sam.
The names that Perlozzo has worn on his chest include Reno, Tidewater, Toledo, Little Falls, Lynchburg, Hawaii and Jackson. Once, he was even a Yakult Swallow in Japan. Perlozzo hasn't taken that uniform, which defines him, off his back for the last 28 years. But sometimes, those uniforms haven't returned all the affection he bestowed on them.
After growing up in Cumberland, Md., where he still lives, Perlozzo was a star infielder at George Washington University, graduating in 1973. Nine years in the minors convinced him that the world wasn't designed for 5-foot-9 shortstops with slick gloves but 12 home runs in 3,230 professional at-bats. At least he got his cup of coffee -- 12 games in the majors, .269 average, zero RBI.
So, he became a lifer. Twenty years ago, it looked as though he was on the career path to being a manager. But it never happened. He never pushed himself or developed a glib act. And he was so valuable in lower jobs that it was hard to promote him. Then two winters ago, he was finally taken seriously for a top job -- by the Orioles. It was yet another symbolic moment for a franchise that has, under Peter Angelos, made the wrong decision on almost everything of importance for the last eight years.
On one hand, the Orioles could pick handsome Lee Mazzilli, the ex-Mets center fielder known as the "Italian Stallion," who was completely unqualified to be a major league manager. But he'd been a first base coach for Joe Torre's Yankees and could spout cliches during a four-hour wow-'em interview about the power of a positive attitude. Ironically, the Orioles' other obvious choice was to pick Perlozzo, perhaps the most demonstrably qualified man in baseball.
Mazzilli had never been a bench coach. Perlozzo had been the Orioles' bench coach for five years. Mazzilli had never been a third base coach, the job that usually precedes bench coach. Perlozzo had been the Orioles' third base coach for five years. Mazzilli had never managed higher than Class AA or won anything. Perlozzo, in five years as a manager in the Mets' chain, had won everything you could name right up through Class AAA -- three league championships in five years, no losing seasons, Baseball America's minor league manager of the year.
Mazzilli had no Orioles roots, no deep ties with the coaching staff he inherited. With the media, he was cordial and dignified, but flavorless. Imagine, a career baseball man devoid of entertaining stories he'd be willing to share. As for original ideas, if he had any, Maz kept them a secret as well. The longer he stayed in the job, the more obvious it became that, after repeating "We have to stay positive" several times, Mazzilli had little to offer as a motivator or clubhouse psychologist.
In contrast, Perlozzo knew the Orioles inside and out after serving 10 of his 18 years as a big league coach in Baltimore. As for tall tales, self-effacingly told, he'd accumulated plenty as a right-hand man to three pennant-winning managers: brainy Davey Johnson, fiery Lou Piniella and mellow Mike Hargrove.
The Orioles, hungry as always for a quick fix, a dramatic move or an "upgrade," saw Mazzilli as a headline-grabbing decision that might prove brilliant. After firing Hargrove, who'd won pennants with the Indians, the Orioles didn't see how a hire with as little charisma as Perlozzo could defend them against the charge: "You fired a proven pro like Hargrove for this guy?"
Of course, flashing a smile with pizzazz wasn't necessary for managers such as Dick Howser, Tom Kelly, Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Cito Gaston, Jim Frey or Terry Francona, all of whom did pretty well. Perlozzo is more from their low-key school. Once, when Hargrove left the Orioles for several games, Perlozzo took over. "Your mind is constantly racing," Perlozzo said, modestly. "I thought, 'Where is my bench coach?' But I wasn't there."
So, taking all of this into consideration, the Orioles picked Mazzilli over Perlozzo. Now, 269 games later, they can flip-flop.
Perversely, Perlozzo's own competence made it easier for the Orioles to ignore him. He was such a fine bench coach, handling in-game strategy, while Ray Miller was such a respected pitching coach, that Mazzilli barely had to make any decisions -- unless he chose to -- from first pitch to last. The Orioles knew that Perlozzo would baby-sit Mazzilli in his rookie year, not stab him in the back because that's Sammy's nature. He's a natural sweetheart. Team first. No ego. Hits fungos. Works all hours. Always a sly grin or a friendly welcome.
In all walks of life, the Sam Perlozzos, who are born then return to live in their Cumberlands, who coach for the same team for 10 years and never say, "Why did you pass me over for promotion?" tend to get shortchanged for flashier, newer models.
But this time, if only for the last 55 games of a season, Perlozzo will get to be a major league manager.
The only other first-time manager in baseball history as old as Perlozzo with as low a profile who took over a team on an "interim" basis and then went on to a successful career was Joe Morgan of the Red Sox in 1988 (he was 57 when he assumed the helm and won two division titles). We should take this for what it's worth: Perlozzo finally gets two months inside the candy store.
The Orioles have so many problems you need a running list. Though you can fire Mazzilli, nobody can fire Angelos. So, that one is insoluble. But what do you do when Rafael Palmeiro comes back, cloaked in scandal? Play him? Frisk him? Shun him? Hug him? How do you handle Sidney Ponson, the world's only $7.5-million-a-year, judge-punching, coach-cursing, media-shunning Knight of Aruba with a 6.12 ERA? Shun him? Hug him? Give him his own reality TV show?
Sammy's got his hands full. But you can be sure he'll show up early every day, already in uniform, like a kid at the candy store. In his first game yesterday, the Orioles ended an eight-game losing streak with a clean 4-1 win over the first-place Angels. With the kind of good baseball karma that Perlozzo has built up over a lifetime in the game, who knows what can happen?
The Orioles might even decide to straighten up and win enough games to bring him back next year.