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Bird Watching The downtrodden Orioles have a new manager and three free-agent sluggers, but in the star-studded AL East, will anyone notice?

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

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Bird Watching The downtrodden Orioles have a new manager and three free-agent sluggers, but in the star-studded AL East, will anyone notice?

It's a quiet morning in the Baltimore Orioles' spring training
clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale, until the team's new marquee player
bursts in like a South Florida rainstorm, dressed in a shiny silk
shirt and a pair of sleek shades and yapping into his cellphone.
Minutes after Miguel Tejada plops into his chair, his corner
locker--on stately veterans' row, next to those of Rafael
Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff--becomes the gravitational center of
the room. One by one, half-naked, cereal-chomping teammates pull
up chairs until a half dozen of them are seated in a semicircle
around their new shortstop. "He'll sit there and tell stories
about everything--growing up in the Dominican, playing in
Oakland," says righthander Rodrigo Lopez. "He likes to talk, and
we like listening to him."

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

"I like attention," Tejada says with a grin. That's a good thing,
because he'll get plenty of it as the Orioles attempt to snap a
streak of six losing seasons, the longest in the franchise's
50-year history. After being beaten in 91 games last year, the
once-proud team has undergone baseball's version of an extreme
makeover, highlighted by the Dec. 14 signing of the 27-year-old
free agent Tejada, the 2002 American League MVP, to a six-year,
$72 million deal, the largest in Orioles history. Baltimore also
has a new manager, former New York Yankees first base coach Lee
Mazzilli; a beefed-up middle third of the lineup, with the
signings of two other free agents, catcher Javy Lopez and first
baseman Palmeiro; and an improved rotation, with the return of
righthander Sidney Ponson. All these players were acquired during
a monthlong, $121 million shopping spree.

Lopez, Palmeiro and Tejada join rightfielder Jay Gibbons to give
the Orioles a quartet of players who each had at least 20 homers
and 100 RBIs last year. The only other team with that kind of
power is the Yankees. And that brings us to the Orioles' problem:
In any other division their moves would've been big news, but in
the American League East they were buried under the headlines
made by the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, whose acquisitions
included Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown and Alex Rodriguez. "That
offense is darned good," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein
says of Baltimore's new lineup. "I'm not saying they're not going
to compete [in the AL East], but if you put them in the Central,
they'd be legit contenders, for sure."

For all the new talent, however, the Orioles' most significant
moves of late were the December 2002 appointments of Jim Beattie
and Mike Flanagan as co-vice presidents and chiefs of baseball
operations. Beattie is a former pitcher and Montreal Expos G.M.,
and Flanagan is a former Baltimore pitcher, pitching coach,
broadcaster and adviser to management who has a close
relationship with majority owner Peter Angelos.

Since the beginning of their tenure in the Orioles' front
office--long ridiculed as Baltimore's most dysfunctional
family--Beattie and Flanagan have run a smooth operation,
coexisting peacefully with Angelos. During his 10 years as owner
Angelos has run through five managers and six G.M.'s and has been
harshly criticized for his intrusive management style. But
according to team insiders Angelos has loosened his tight grip on
baseball-related decisions since hiring Beattie and Flanagan.
"There's no doubt that Peter has stepped back," says an Orioles
official. "It used to be Peter and a roomful of his own
[advisers] calling the shots, but that's changed."

Angelos, a 74-year-old Baltimore trial lawyer, maintains a high
profile--in January he was named by Bud Selig to the
commissioner's eight-person executive council--but he insists
that he always "left the baseball decisions to others" and that
his management style these days is no different from that of
years past. "Jim and Mike make an excellent combination," Angelos
says. "I trust their judgment completely. I'm not there with a
book and stats, saying, 'Let's go after player A or player B.'
I'm here listening."

Four years ago, when Angelos fired G.M. Frank Wren (now assistant
G.M. of the Braves), Wren accused the owner and his sons, Lou and
John, of meddling too much in baseball affairs. That winter Lou
and John made up two fifths of the committee that advised their
father in the ill-fated hiring of manager Mike Hargrove. Today,
however, the two sons have little if any influence on the team's
baseball policy: Lou works exclusively in his father's Baltimore
law office, and John, though he keeps the title of team executive
vice president, is rarely seen at the Camden Yards offices.

Last fall, after Hargrove was fired, Peter Angelos left the
search for a new manager in the hands of a six-member team headed
by Beattie and Flanagan, who quickly put their stamp on the
franchise by selecting Mazzilli, a man with a blank managerial
resume and no ties to Baltimore. The 48-year-old Mazzilli grew up
in Brooklyn, played centerfield for the Mets and, for the last
four seasons, worked for Yankees manager Joe Torre. He brings a
no-nonsense New York sensibility to Baltimore. Spring practices
are a full hour shorter than they were under Hargrove--"short,"
according to Mazzilli, but "intense"--and the players cannot grow
facial hair or bring golf clubs on team flights.

"If there was one knock on [Hargrove], it was that he was too
easy on the guys," says a team source. "There were no
consequences with [him], whether it was wearing jewelry or
showing up late to scrimmages. Maz has a tough attitude that may
be exactly what this team needs."

Beattie and Flanagan arrived at a time when huge contracts
granted by the quick-fix Orioles of the late '90s were finally
coming off the books. This winter, relieved of financial
obligations to former designated hitter Albert Belle, righthander
Scott Erickson and third baseman Tony Batista, the team was $28
million richer. Despite the Orioles' off-season expenditures,
their projected Opening Day payroll is around $55 million,
roughly $15 million less than last year's.

Even with money to spend, Beattie and Flanagan faced the
challenge of luring talent to a team that has scared off free
agents with its recent history of losing and its reputation for
disorganized management. "They were relentless in their efforts
and made it clear that they were committed to building a winning
team," says Fernando Cuza, who represents Tejada and Palmeiro.
"That made a big difference." Tejada, coming off four straight
100-RBI seasons with the A's, says he was impressed by Beattie
and Flanagan's pitch. "There was no doubt that these guys wanted
to win," the shortstop says.

Lopez came aboard eight days after Tejada, and Palmeiro followed
within a month. "Did Miguel's signing factor into my decision to
sign?" says Palmeiro. "Definitely."

Palmeiro returns to Baltimore, where he played from 1994 through
'98, after a five-year stint with the Texas Rangers, a
strong-hitting, weak-pitching team with which Flanagan often
hears the Orioles compared. Flanagan scoffs at that
characterization--even though Ponson is the only starter to have
won more than seven games last year--and says the Orioles will
build around young pitchers such as lefthanders Adam Loewen and
Matt Riley and righthander Kurt Ainsworth, all of whom have a
good chance to open the season in the majors. "We've been able to
spend on the every-day player and on defense," Flanagan says. "We
have a surplus of outstanding young arms. Now our decisions with
them have to be sound."

One of Beattie and Flanagan's first acts last winter was to
overhaul a minor league system that was slapped with an F by
Baseball America in 2002. They hired a new minor league director,
Doc Rodgers, and changed managers at the top four affiliates.
"There's definitely some pitching talent there," says a major
league advance scout. "Give them a couple of years, and they
could have a strong staff made up of their own guys."

The Orioles know that in the mighty AL East they are the
equivalent of Dennis Kucinich, gazing up at the loaded Yankees
and Red Sox, not to mention the upgraded Toronto Blue Jays.
Nonetheless, for the first time in years, optimism abounds in
Charm City. After six straight seasons of declining attendance,
the team has seen a spike in ticket sales this winter; in the
first week of February alone the Orioles sold 1,300 new season
packages. The team's FanFest in downtown Baltimore on Feb. 7
attracted 15,000 people, the largest one-day crowd in the event's
20-year history.

Last Friday in Fort Lauderdale an Orioles icon, 73-year-old
former manager Earl Weaver, stopped by the morning workout. He
schmoozed with Mazzilli on the infield grass before retreating to
the dugout to watch batting practice. "It's going to be
exciting," Weaver said. "I can't wait to follow them."

He spoke for the Orioles faithful, so quiet for years, so ready
to make some noise.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON NO NONSENSE Mazzilli brings New York attitude.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON BAT MEN In signing (from left) Lopez, Tejada and Palmeiro the Orioles added 108 homers and 327 RBIs to their lineup.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON LOOKING UP Tejada left a winner in Oakland to join the rebuilding Orioles.
"That offense is darned good," Epstein says. "If you put them in
the Central, they'd be legit contenders, for sure."