The Washington Post's Orioles beat writer, Dave Sheinin, has penned a scathing report on the Orioles' underwhelming first half of the season. In the lengthy article, Sheinin shines a harsh spotlight on rookie manager Lee Mazzilli, turns the lens to Peter Angelos's renewed meddlesome ways, and recaps the many things that have gone wrong on the field for the Birds this year. The most disturbing revelations:
- Mazzilli has “lost the clubhouse,” according to two anonymous veteran players.
- Angelos used his veto powers in last month's draft to dictate that the Orioles' first-round pick be a college pitcher.
- Angelos became so infuriated with Sidney Ponson's woes that he checked into the possibility of voiding the pitcher's contract because Ponson had failed to keep himself in first-class physical condition.
- Mazzilli has not blended in with the returning contingent of Oriole coaches as seamlessly as hoped: “According to clubhouse sources, Mazzilli's relationship with his coaches is distant at best, cool at worst.”
- In the season opener, Maz actually wanted to bring in left-hander Buddy Groom, not right-hander Rodrigo López, to face the left-handed hitter Johnny Damon, but a mix-up led to López entering the game. Mazzilli, as we know, was subsequently praised for going against convention while giving the demoted López an immediate chance to make an impact.
- Maz made another blunder on June 17 when he went on the field to make a switch before López was ready to enter the game.
A tale told by unnamed glass-housed stone-throwers
A major caveat is that all of the controversial information in the article comes from unnamed sources. Although the story has some other weighty information, without those anonymous quotes it loses its teeth.
As the Post's own ombudsman has written, whenever the name of a source is not attached to a quote, the reader loses important information that could be helpful in interpreting the comments. Was the source in a position to have first-hand knowledge about the issue? Did he or she have special experience or perspective that could have colored his or her perceptions? Did he or she have an axe to grind? Because of these and other questions, it is always better to have sources directly attributed.
Assuming that Sheinin's sources have been truthful and accurate, there have been some ugly developments behind the scenes in Birdland. Of these, I would place Mazzilli's losing the clubhouse at the top of the list, followed by Guardian Angelos's paternal pokiness.
Maz in a maze of trouble
In Mazzilli's case, once a manager loses the trust of his players, he has little left on which to stand. The story gave no specific reasons why Mazzilli has apparently alienated some of his players, but if the atmosphere remains as such he is in deep trouble indeed.
Mazzilli's in-game blunders are more forgivable. Every rookie manager should have a little space to make a few bad decisions and mistakes, as long as he recognizes them quickly and corrects himself.
As for Mazzilli not being buddy-buddy with his coaches, this is understandable, but not really acceptable. Maz came into the job as an outsider and inherited the Orioles' entire 2003 coaching staff without changes, so there was going to be some adjustment time between Mazzilli and his new charges. But because Maz takes pride in being a man of personal relationships, his current situation is even more unexpected.
The standard-bearer in these parts, Earl Weaver, liked to keep a distance from his players, using his coaches as intermediaries when necessary. Maz seems to have taken the inverse approach, being on everyday speaking terms with his players yet keeping a distance from his coaching staff. And he apparently hasn't won over all of his players, so his approach is looking dubious right now.
Angelos rears his ugly head
The reports of Angelos tinkering with the machinery are irksome but hardly unexpected. After pouring money and time into the club in the 1990s, Steinb—er, Angelos seemed to step back for a few years and let Syd Thrift and Mike Hargrove run a low-cost, low-performance operation. He remained quiet last year as the new front office got settled.
But after spending millions of dollars last winter to bolster the team, Angelos seemed to be under the illusion that the Orioles were ready to contend this year. It's true that this year's roster is markedly improved over last year's, but last year's outfit won just 71 games, leaving a lot of room for improvement. This year, a win total in the eighties seemed reasonable, but the 90+ wins needed for the playoffs were all but out of reach even in the most rosy scenario.
And the Orioles' stumbles in May and June awakened the sleeping dog that was Angelos's micromanaging nature. Angelos may turn out to be correct about taking pitcher Wade Townsend instead of a shortstop in the first round, but he may have embittered the team's scouting staff in doing so, just as he alienated then-General Manager Pat Gillick in 1996 by refusing to trade veterans David Wells and Bobby Bonilla for prospects. As majority owner, Angelos has the right to voice his opinion on important (i.e., expensive) player transactions, but overruling the team's baseball decision-makers should never become a regular practice for him.
Angelos's fiddling with Ponson is equally unsettling. His inquiry may have been a bluff, a motivational ploy to force Ponson to get into better shape and step up his performance. But if Angelos had succeeded in nullifying Ponson's contract, he would have been premature and probably mistaken. Remember, Ponson was nearly as heavy last year when he had his best season, and many of his struggles this season can be traced to poor situational pitching and weak support from his teammates. It's possible, even probable, that better physical fitness would have yielded better results, but the link between the two is not as intimate as one might think.
All of Angelos's recent words and actions represent the attitude of an impatient, disgruntled fan, not the patient, long-term perspective required of a good baseball executive. Unless he wants to wreck his team anew, Angelos needs to trust the judgment of his baseball personnel and let them do their jobs without interference.
Of course, an owner should have the freedom to talk with his front office periodically to keep up with the rationale behind their decisions and find out what they need to do their jobs better. But the only appropriate time to step in and overrule the hired hands is when it's clear that they don't know what they're doing. And it has not reached that point in Baltimore... yet.