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Spring pundits picked the Baltimore Orioles to host a playoff series this weekend, but instead, Camden Yards’ next home game features Pope John Paul II. That fits, because the Orioles didn’t have a prayer of making the playoffs. This year’s Birds rank with the Comet Kohoutek and Sharon Pratt Dixon/Kelly as disappointments of historic proportions.
When a team falls so phenomenally short of expectations, the big question—for fans and the front office—is whether spring projections were that far out of whack or whether the club is indeed fundamentally sound and just needs a bit of fine tuning. Certainly, a healthy Ben McDonald, with about a dozen more wins than his 3-6 mark, and Mark Eichhorn maintaining order for 100 middle innings would go a long way toward restoring the Orioles to contender status.
But that’s a little too simple for Oriole owner Peter Angelos, who’s got to find someone to blame for his $45-million flop. That puts rookie field manager Phil Regan and veteran general manager Roland Hemond on the firing line. You don’t have to be a megalomaniac like Angelos to make a legitimate case for casting these Bird brains adrift.
Hemond’s situation is at once more difficult and the most clear. There’s been a lot to like under Hemond. The Orioles have progressed from the worst team in the majors to a consistent threat during his eight years at the helm, and the club’s favored status in the AL East this season was a direct result of Hemond’s handiwork. This year, Hemond also managed to bury his reputation for failing to come up with big moves down the stretch. In previous seasons, Hemond brought aboard the likes of Craig Lefferts and Keith Moreland for the pennant drive while rivals added David Cone and Rickey Henderson. This summer, however, the Orioles made the right moves, acquiring slugger Bobby Bonilla for the empty slot in their lineup, and competent starter Scott Erickson to fill McDonald’s slot.
But there is a lot of room for second guessing on the minus side of Hemond’s ledger. It’s hard to defend the Glenn Davis deal, the Sid Fernandez signing, and—the greatest sin this season—Hemond’s failure to recognize just how problematic the bullpen would be. Then there’s the failure to sign Ron Gant: A slugging outfielder, Gant was released by the Atlanta Braves during spring training in 1994 because of a severely broken leg (in a contractually restricted motorcycle accident) and a $5-million salary. Gant signed with the Cincinnati Reds that June, missed the entire 1994 season, and has been an all-world power hitter this year.
Leaked reports suggest that Hemond ignored Angelos’ order to sign Gant last year, but it may be more complicated than that. Hemond has never crossed any of his owners, even when they’ve wanted to do much stupider things, like trade Eddie Murray or hold a Disco Demolition Night. Moreover, in the wake of the Davis debacle, Angelos insists on perfect health from his on-field employees, making it unlikely he’d enter a bidding war for a lame outfielder. Angelos may have told Hemond to look into the Gant situation, and perhaps Hemond decided the price wasn’t right. Angelos is probably exaggerating his orginal interest and intensifying his criticism because he needs a fall guy for the O’s’ fallen fortunes. Hemond may find himself in the same situation as field manager Johnny Oates a year ago—Angelos has simply decided he doesn’t like Hemond, so the guy’s got to go.
“I outlasted three ownerships in Chicago, and three ownerships here,” the impish Hemond noted before the final game of the season last Sunday, adding that at age 65, “I’ve got a lot of baseball left in me.” Hemond changed out of his Polyanna dress long enough to admit he was disappointed to learn Angelos had asked permission to interview Clevelandassistant GM Dan O’Dowd and San Diego GM Randy Smith. “I wish I hadn’t found that out,” he conceded.
If Hemond goes, Frank Robinson should get the Oriole GM job, but he’s probably seen enough of Angelos and will likely go work for former Oriole President Larry Lucchino in San Diego, while Smith, a proven yes-man, comes to Baltimore.
Smith’s first task should be to hire a new manager. Regan says he expects to be back—hey, he’s got another year on his contract. “Phil did a great job,” Hemond suggests, back in his Polyanna uniform. That’s baloney. It is difficult to think of any reason, profession or personal, for Regan to return. At least Mussolini made the trains run on time; Regan inherited a contender, demonstrated no faith in his players, and led his club to a losing record, all the while showing the front office a shit-eating grin.
Regan is the worst kind of managerial fascist—impatient, impulsive, and ineffective in his choices. In his first year at the helm, he incessantly played the hot hand. Regan took two unsettled spots in the infield—third base and second base—and kept them unsettled all year. He also overexposed Kevin Bass, and rushed Curtis Goodwin to the majors only to bury him. (The Orioles still can’t be sure whether Goodwin will be ready for 1996.) In the bullpen, Regan’s allegiance to the hot hand burned out Alan Mills. And impatience isn’t even Regan’s worst quality.
From his decision to change the Oriole approach to cutoff plays at the start of (an abbreviated) spring training to his recent insistence that McDonald relieve rather than start in his comeback appearance, Regan has shown himself to be manipulative, petty, and incommunicative. This so-called pitching expert failed to make headway with two of the finest young arms in the organization, Brad Pennington and Armando Benitez. In addition to his pointless public dispute with McDonald, Regan also alienated potential franchise player Jeffrey Hammonds by failing to discuss his demotion to the minors. The Orioles’ utter lack of heart reflects his utter lack of faith.
Regan defends himself, saying a lot of successful managers aren’t well liked. You’re right, Phil, it’s not a popularity contest—it’s the wins that count. If you ever do become successful, it’ll be fine to be disliked. Given the leeway he had with the roster, Regan richly deserves full blame for this year’s losing record.
The only conceivable way for Regan to avoid the ax is with an appeal to the owner’s vanity. “You took a chance on me, Mr. Angelos, your excellency,” Regan might say. “Are you going to let the criticism of others force you into admitting you made a mistake, your grace?” There’s some truth behind that approach; to paraphrase Everett Dirksen, you change managers every year and pretty soon you’ve got real instability. But keeping the wrong guy is the wrong kind of stability.
It’s impossible to excuse the Orioles for failing to hire Davey Johnson a year ago. A former Oriole and a winner, Johnson would have been the right guy for this situation, even if he’s occasionally prone to disagreements with his front office. He’s due to get his walking papers from the Cincinnati Reds this fall, and having worked for Marge Schott, Johnson shouldn’t have too much trouble working for Peter Angelos. And if Angelos keeps it up, he could move ahead of Schott in the owners’ wild card division.