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Cookie Doesn't Crumble, He Bounces Back : Baseball: Rojas, ex-Angel manager, is working in the Florida Marlins' organization and might be in line to take over team on the field.

July 21, 1992|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He left town under a cloud large enough to cover Roseanne. He was a victory for affirmative action in major league baseball one minute, and a casualty the next. His employers ushered him in on a red carpet and then unceremoniously pulled the rug from under him.

But Octavio (Cookie) Rojas, the former Angel manager, has bounced back.

Rojas, 53, is now with the Florida Marlins as an assistant to General Manager David Dombrowski. His duties include scouting the eastern half of the country, evaluating potential Marlin selections from major and minor league clubs for the expansion draft in November.

It's a job that keeps the Cuban-born Rojas, a five-time All-Star second baseman during a 16-year career with Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Kansas City, heavily involved in the game. And one that possibly could lead him back to managing.

The Marlins, who along with the Colorado Rockies will begin play in the National League next season, probably won't name a manager until mid- or late October. The list of candidates is long and Rojas, though working close with Dombrowski, says he doesn't know if his name is on it. But he wouldn't pass up the opportunity if offered.

"It's premature to mention me as a strong candidate," Rojas said. "No one has offered me anything. Mr. Dombrowski has a list of about 50 (managerial candidates). Of course, I've always said I would like to manage again."

Because of the large Hispanic population in Miami, where the team will play its home games in Joe Robbie Stadium, there's speculation the Marlins might choose a manager with ties to that community. If true, that could make Rojas and Reds' coach Tony Perez, also Cuban, the leading contenders. Yet, Dombrowski claims nobody at this point has an edge.

"There are quite a few people on that list who are minority," said Dombrowski, the former Montreal Expos general manager. "It would be a plus for us if we ultimately hired someone who spoke Spanish, but that's only one of the factors that comes into consideration. . . . There's no question Cookie is a quality baseball man."

If only Rojas could have convinced the Angels of that.

In September, 1988, the Angels fired him as manager with only eight games remaining in the season because then-general manager Mike Port felt that "change for the sake of change can be a positive thing." The club was 75-79 and in fourth place in the American League West, 23 1/2 games behind first-place Oakland.

The change didn't immediately prove positive, however. The Angels chose coach Moose Stubing to replace Rojas in the interim, but they still dropped their last eight games. Being dismissed so close to the end of the season still irritates Rojas.

"I believe they should have allowed me to finish the year," he said. "That was very unfair."

Rojas began that season as a fielding instructor and advance scout with the Angels, but became manager when Gene Mauch retired for health reasons about two weeks before opening day. Rojas' only managerial experience was in Latin American winter leagues, but Mauch and Port's assistant, longtime baseball man Preston Gomez, recommended Rojas for the job. So, with little time to search for anyone else and perhaps wanting to be politically correct, the Angels signed Rojas.

Rojas says he did his best to inspire a team that had finished last in the AL West the previous season. However, early season injuries to center fielder Devon White and second baseman Mark McLemore crippled the offense and the pitching staff failed to keep the team in games. By season's end, the Angels were next-to-last in the league in team ERA (4.32) and walks (568), and had tied a club record with 68 wild pitches.

Other injuries, especially those to pitchers Dan Petry, Bryan Harvey, Donnie Moore, Greg Minton and Kirk McCaskill, depleted and devastated the staff.

"It would have been nice to get some help when we had players down," Rojas said, "but we basically didn't have anything in the minor leagues to substitute for those players."

Even if they had been able to plug the holes, the Angels' front office, and Port in particular, apparently was growing impatient with Rojas as the season progressed. Critics, on the club and elsewhere, questioned some of his tactical and personnel moves even though Rojas guided the team to a 31-11 record from June 16-Aug. 2 and into third place, 9 1/2 games behind the A's. A nose dive followed and the Angels slipped into fourth place, where they finished the season.

Among Rojas' more publicized unconventional field decisions: removing right-hander Mike Witt from a 5-0 game with two outs in the ninth inning in June, ordering too many intentional walks and keeping young players on the bench instead of playing them late in the season when the pennant race was nothing more than a memory.

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