Can Dan Duquette restore the glory days for the Baltimore Orioles?
BALTIMORE -- Dan Duquette spent over two decades in the front offices of major league baseball teams, culminating with his role as Red Sox general manager in which he helped assemble the key pieces of what would become Boston's 2004 Curse-busting World Series title team.
By the time the Red Sox won that championship, however, Duquette was long gone, having been fired in 2002. Tuesday, he re-emerged with his first job in major league baseball in nine years, as the new general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
It's a perfect match in that both the man and his new team are trying to return to prominence after years of irrelevance.
Sporting an orange tie, the 53-year-old Duquette, a Massachusetts native, spoke fondly of his childhood connections to the Orioles. He delivered newspapers to O's shortstop Mark Belanger, met his first big-leaguer, legendary Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson, at Fenway Park and played games in the backyard of his home in which he and his brother pretended to be members of the late-'60s Orioles, a mini-dynasty that won four pennants and two World Series from 1966-1971.
Perhaps it is fitting then that Duquette will now be charged with restoring the Orioles to glory. Their last winning season came in 1997, when they won the AL East but lost in the ALCS to the Indians. Since then, they have endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, have had a revolving door of managers and GMs and have seen much of the fan base that filled beautiful Camden Yards to near capacity throughout the 1990s erode.
Last season, when the Orioles finished in the AL East basement at 69-93 -- their sixth straight season with at least 92 losses -- their attendance dropped to 1.75 million, which ranked 26th lowest of all 30 teams.
Duquette, though, isn't shy about taking on such a monumental task. "This is right up my alley, turning around clubs and building a farm and scouting system,'' Duquette said. "This is what I love to do.''
A few hours after his press conference, Duquette was smiling and pinching himself. When a reporter asked him if he could have imagined this scenario two weeks ago, he responded with a hearty laugh that echoed throughout the room.
"Two weeks ago, I wasn't expecting this,'' Duquette said. "But things went my way, and I got the job. I am so excited. I am thrilled at this opportunity. I'm so grateful.''
The thing he missed most about baseball? "Being around the people, day-to-day,'' he said. "I missed the relationships I had with baseball people. There's a certain energy that comes from being around a baseball team, especially a team in contention.''
To get the Orioles back in contention, Duquette has a lot of work to do. He inherits a team with a thin rotation and bullpen. He must find a leftfielder, a backup catcher, a DH and perhaps two infielders, depending on how second baseman Brian Roberts rebounds from concussion symptoms suffered in May.
Roberts, the team's leadoff batter, has two years and $20 million left on his contract, and he's missed virtually the last two seasons with injuries. Although his concussion symptoms have improved, the Orioles aren't sure if he's going to be able to be their regular second baseman next season.
There is a decent nucleus around which to build, however. Catcher Matt Wieters, 25, was a first-time All-Star in 2011 and won a Gold Glove, as did hard-hitting 27-year-old outfielder Nick Markakis, who is joined in the outfield by 26-year-old Adam Jones, himself a former All-Star and Gold Glover who set career highs in 2011 with 25 home runs and 83 RBIs.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy, who played excellent defense and hit 30 home runs, signed a three-year contract that starts in 2012. Slugger Mark Reynolds hit 37 home runs and drove in 86 runs.
The Orioles have been trying to develop a core of young starting pitching, but of that group, lefty Zach Britton was the best and he was a middling 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA and only 97 strikeouts. Fellow lefty Brian Matusz was injured and had work-ethic problems. Jake Arrieta showed promise, but wound up on the disabled list with an elbow injury. Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen failed after each was given numerous chances.
Duquette doesn't rule out signing free agents, but he wants to focus on scouting and player development and increase the inventory of prospects, a philosophy he learned under former Orioles GM Harry Dalton when the two were with the Milwaukee Brewers. Duquette said teams with strong farm systems compete yearly. He wants to expand the Orioles' presence in the international scouting market.
Then, when the system has legitimate prospects, the players can either grow into big-league jobs or be traded for players that can be big-league caliber. It's a mandatory philosophy when doing battle in the rugged AL East that features the money-minting New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
"It's important to have a number of good ones,'' Duquette said. "How can we compete if we don't have aggressive scouting and development? It is a requirement for the Baltimore Orioles.
"When you don't have the resources that the top two clubs have, you have to work harder and you have to work smarter. You have to do a better job in scouting and player development.''
On Monday night, Duquette and manager Buck Showalter sat in the Orioles' clubhouse and talked baseball for almost three hours.
"I trust Dan,'' Showalter said. "He's going to be good. He has a good grasp on what's going on with the Orioles. It feels good that I don't have to worry about that stuff and can turn my attention onto the field. ''
Duquette, whose cousin, Jim, is a former Orioles general manager, has experience turning around small- and big-market teams. As a GM for the Montreal Expos from 1991 to 1994, Duquette turned the team from a doormat into a contender while building a strong farm system.
When he took over as the Red Sox's general manager in 1994, he transformed a team that had three consecutive losing records into one that went to the postseason in 1995, 1998 and 1999. He built the foundation for the 2004 World Series championship team by trading prospects for pitcher Pedro Martinez and signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. He also pulled off the most lopsided trade in Red Sox's history, sending relief pitcher Heathcliff Slocumb to Seattle for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.
But Duquette was let go in April 2002, leaving with the reputation that he was a failed executive who alienated people with his lack of communication skill. His replacement, Theo Epstein, finished the rebuilding job that Duqeutte started.
"Dan deserves a lot of credit for putting much of the core of the '04 club in place -- Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Trot Nixon,'' Epstein, now the Chicago Cubs president, said in an e-mail. "We added to the core with David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Bill Mueller, Orlando Cabrera and Kevin Millar, but much of the nucleus was there.
"We tried to acknowledge Dan's contributions at the time with our public comments and by presenting him with a World Series ring. I'm sure he'll have success in Baltimore.''
After getting fired in 2002, Duquette had a tearful good-bye with reporters, vowing he'd be back. He said the nine years away from baseball did him good because he got to spend time with his family and pursue another dream of building a baseball academy to train players.
"I needed a rest from the day-to-day grind,'' Duquette said. "My focus is going to be sharper and better after being away from the game.''
He also says he learned from his mistakes. "You are what your record says it is. I've learned how to communicate effectively with all the constituencies. One benefit is that I have a stronger appreciation for the day-to-day communication with the media.''
Duquette didn't think it would take him this long to get back to the big leagues. He said that he tried to be more aggressive about finding a baseball job this season. He interviewed for the Los Angeles Angels' job, but it went to Jerry Dipoto.
He's happy to be back in the game. "Baseball is in my DNA,'' Duquette said. "I have been a baseball man for 25 years. This challenge is a challenge I looked for. I'm excited. I want to give the Orioles a team they can be proud of. I know it can be done.''