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Orioles still looking for the right direction

June 24, 2007|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

Last month, Sam Perlozzo watched as his Orioles batted in the ninth inning against the Nationals at RFK Stadium, trailing 4-3. On the top step of the opposite dugout, the entire Washington team was leaning over the railing, rooting for its reliever to get three outs to avoid a sweep by Baltimore. Every Nationals player and coach, as well as several Nats who were in uniform despite being on the disabled list, were all shoulder to shoulder, yelling, laughing and analyzing.

Across the field, in dismal contrast, only one Orioles player, Nick Markakis, stood on the top step of the Baltimore dugout -- the only Bird on the rail, the lone player who cared enough to leave his seat to yell for a rally. The Orioles lost.

"I saw it. It wasn't the first time this season," Perlozzo said Monday. Once, according to a coach, he told his staff, "Let's all get up on the top step and see if they'll follow us." That didn't work, either. But then, in the Orioles' 10th straight losing season, what has worked in Baltimore, except turning down the heat temporarily by firing the manager? Monday, after their 13th loss in 15 games, the Orioles fired Perlozzo.

Despite 12 years as a Baltimore coach and manager, Perlozzo had feared the news for weeks. "I thought if we lost that series in Washington, I might be gone," he said. But the Orioles, with their $95-million payroll, not only escaped embarrassment in that Beltway Series to the $37-million Nats but actually went on a six-game winning streak the following week, reaching .500 -- their goal for this season -- on the last day of May. Then, the bottom fell out in a classic June swoon. So instead, he was fired on the first day of the season when the Orioles' record was worse than the Nationals'.

What has distinguished the Orioles in recent years is that they can collapse in any month. And those flops frequently occur just as the team approaches its preseason expectations. "One thing worries me," said an Orioles decision maker last month as the team approached a winning mark. "Every team has a comfort zone. For years now, it's seemed like we don't feel comfortable until we're 10 games under .500. How do we break that pattern?"

Now, the Orioles are back in comfy territory at 29-40 with their seventh departed manager since 1994. Only once in this century have the Orioles finished fewer than 14 games under .500. Miguel Tejada's 150 RBIs got them to 78-84 in '04.

"I'm not saying we blame this on Sam, but I think even he was getting frustrated," said Mike Flanagan, who removed the interim tag from Perlozzo after he was promoted to head of baseball operations in October 2005. "It seemed nightly something different and bizarre would happen."

Even Perlozzo could not hold back a disbelieving laugh when he said: "We did have the worst stretch of luck I've ever seen for the last three weeks. We'd have the right guy warmed up to come in, but we could never get a guy out. And our offense never gave the poor relievers any breathing room. It was always a tie game or one run, so every mistake felt bigger."

"We felt Sam was prepared. We felt the team was prepared to do battle every night," Flanagan said. "For whatever reason, it wasn't working."

That's half right. Perlozzo was prepared. The Baltimore brass gave him $42 million worth of set-up relievers. So, he used them. One has already been released, another, Danys Baez, had a 6.52 ERA in 31 games before going on the disabled list. The Orioles also added depth with proven, though far from special, players such as Aubrey Huff and Jay Payton. The result was a modest logjam with five players for four spots. Everybody was happy with the situation -- except whoever didn't play.

"They wanted me to maneuver everybody around, so we did," Perlozzo said. "It was a good idea, but nobody hit. You can't win in the American League, especially the East, if you can't score five runs a game." Those runs may yet come, but not in time to help Perlozzo.

The issue of team preparation is a touchier issue. The Orioles' locker room hasn't been on the same page for years. The front office keeps changing the mix, but the chemistry hasn't clicked. "It was a culture shock to come over here, seeing Javy Lopez playing with his toy airplanes before the game," one Orioles coach said recently.

Few men understand the game better than Perlozzo. But he continued a tradition of nice-guy players' managers who have failed in Baltimore. Neither authoritative in bearing nor combative by nature, he couldn't transform that inert culture. When the team's expensive new relievers collapsed, it made no difference whether he waved his right or left arm toward the bullpen. All decisions were wrong. Orioles crowds, unable to directly boo Flanagan and Jim Duquette, took out their justifiable frustration on the amiable but often perplexed-looking Perlozzo.

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