Although the Baltimore Orioles had never fired a manager in mid-season in the 12 years of Peter Angelos's ownership, neither had the franchise ever experienced as steep a fall from contender to disaster as it had this summer. So it was that the Orioles took the unprecedented step on Thursday morning of dismissing Lee Mazzilli as manager, replacing him on an interim basis with longtime bench coach Sam Perlozzo.
"As I told the players, this is not something where we're assigning blame, necessarily," Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie said. "This is something you do in baseball to try to affect a change, affect an improvement. Everyone associated with the big league club, we're all responsible in some way for where we are right now."
Where the Orioles are right now is in fourth place, 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The Orioles' 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday snapped a brutal eight-game losing streak. Having once enjoyed 62 consecutive days in first place in the American League East, now the Orioles are as close to last place as they are to first.
Angelos declined to comment about Mazzilli's firing when reached on his cell phone in Baltimore, other than to say he supports the front office's decision. But Mazzilli's dismissal is the latest blow to an organization that has absorbed many since the end of last season.
In December, pitcher Sidney Ponson was arrested in his native Aruba for assaulting a local judge and served 11 days in jail. In March, sluggers Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were called to Capitol Hill to testify before a House committee investigating steroid use in sports. And on Monday, Palmeiro was suspended 10 days for violating the league's steroid policy.
Mazzilli, who was hired as Mike Hargrove's replacement on Nov. 7, 2003, went 129-140 in a little more than a season and a half in Baltimore -- including 51-56 this year. He was informed of the decision Thursday morning by Beattie at the team hotel. He chose not to go to the stadium to address the players.
"It's part of the job, unfortunately," said Mazzilli, when reached on his cell phone as he headed to the airport. "Someone has to be held accountable. You wish you could see it through and get it done. Unfortunately, we couldn't get it done. I'll miss the people. The city really made me feel welcome."
Still, Beattie said the ultimate decision to fire Mazzilli came together only in the previous 24 hours, as the Orioles' slide grew steeper and faster.
By the time Mazzilli was informed of his firing, Perlozzo had already known about the move for eight hours. Beattie said he informed Perlozzo late Wednesday night to give him time to figure out what he wanted to say to the team when he addressed them for the first time Thursday morning.
"It was quiet in there," Perlozzo said of his first meeting with the players. "I said, 'If we want to point fingers, we point them at each of ourselves. We're all part of what happened here.' And I said, after today they can point them at me."
Perlozzo, 54, has been a major league coach for 19 seasons, including 10 with the Orioles organization under managers Davey Johnson, Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove and Mazzilli. He was considered one of the favorites for the permanent job two winters ago, before the organization ultimately chose Mazzilli.
Perlozzo said he would treat the two-month stint at the Orioles' helm as an audition, although Beattie said it was too soon to speculate about Perlozzo's prospects of earning the permanent job. Major League Baseball rules require a franchise to conduct a thorough search, which must include the consideration of minority candidates.
"It's something I've been wanting to do, and I have two months to do it, and I'm going to make the best of it," said Perlozzo. "God blessed me, in that I can say I managed a major league team. . . . [But] I have a lot to prove. The jury's going to be out there, and I know that. I'm not afraid of that challenge."
The surprise hiring of Mazzilli -- who, like Perlozzo, had never managed in the majors, and who at the time was serving as Joe Torre's first base coach with the New York Yankees -- was widely viewed as a bold and unusual one for a franchise that typically likes to promote from within. The team executives who made up the search committee spoke of Mazzilli "blowing us away" in the interview.
"If we take risks, sometimes some of those risks pay off, and sometimes they don't," Beattie said. "But if you take the safe route all the time, sometimes that's not going to get you anywhere either. We felt what we did was the appropriate thing to do in hiring Maz. And we felt a lot of good things happened in the last two years that he brought to the club. So I wouldn't stand here and second guess that at all."
Mazzilli, who was forced to keep Hargrove's entire coaching staff, sometimes struggled to endear himself to his team in his first season, but the team's strong finish -- which lifted it to third place, the Orioles' best finish since 1997 -- created high expectations for 2005.
However, by the start of the second half of the season, it appeared Mazzilli had lost the confidence of some players. Relievers chafed at the way they said Mazzilli used them, and the way he seemed to lose confidence in them after a bad outing.
Although Mazzilli had shown a great knack for handling superstar players such as Sosa and shortstop Miguel Tejada, role players often complained of not knowing where they stood.
"You can try to assess blame all you want," said veteran outfielder B.J. Surhoff. "But when you don't play well and you get into the free fall we got into, there's nowhere to look but at ourselves."
Following what turned out to be his final game as the Orioles' manager, their 8-4 loss to the Angels on Wednesday night, Mazzilli again praised his team's effort. Though he never got a chance to say goodbye to his players, Mazzilli said he would like to thank them.
"I'd say thanks to the guys who went out and busted their [tails] for me and played hard," Mazzilli said. "I was very fortunate to have had a very special group of guys while I was there."
Staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. contributed to this report from Baltimore.