In a decision that was not totally unexpected, the Orioles replaced manager Lee Mazzilli with bench coach Sam Perlozzo this afternoon. Perlozzo, a native Marylander who in the past has been a candidate for managing jobs with the Orioles and other big-league teams, takes over the club for the remainder of the season.
This move could have several possible intentions behind it. The most obvious is to reverse the Orioles' sinking fortunes of late; the team has lost eight straight and has dropped like a stone going back about six weeks—since June 22, the team has gone 9–28 (.243 winning percentage). Although injuries have taken a bite out of the team's performance, no team with the Orioles' talent can fare that poorly for that long without someone eventually paying the price.
A second motivation is to divert attention from Rafael Palmeiro's drug test violation and suspension. The news of the suspension knocked the breath out of an already reeling Oriole squad. And the public relations fallout from the suspension is not going to evaporate; it is going to weigh on the team for the remainder of the season. But the managerial change will absorb some of the media's coverage at least for a few days.
Another reason for the change is that the team's top-level management (owner Peter Angelos in particular) did not see Mazzilli as the long-term answer at manager, and so making a move now gives Perlozzo a chance to get some games on his record that the team can evaluate when deciding whether to re-hire him for next year. In recent years, the well-regarded Perlozzo has often been a bridesmaid; he interviewed for managerial openings with the Orioles in 1999 and 2003 and was a finalist for the Seattle Mariners' post that went to Bob Melvin in 2002. Having served the Orioles as a coach for ten years, he has supporters within the organization who hoped he would get the Orioles' job that was given to Mazzilli in November 2003. Perlozzo, who is 54 and grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, is a leading candidate to manage the team in 2006 and beyond.
Mazzilli takes one for the team
Mazzilli can't be held responsible for everything that went wrong with the Orioles this season—in addition to the injuries and Palmeiro's suspension, the team has fared extraordinarily poorly in clutch situations in recent weeks—but he never really distinguished himself in his brief tenure in Baltimore, so a fan backlash at his dismissal is unlikely. Mazzilli was a manager in the Joe Torre mold: a New York native, emotionally steady in the dugout, assertive when necessary in the clubhouse, low-key and attention-deflecting in public, and relatable to players. On the strategic front, he drew criticism for overplaying his regulars and inastutely handling his pitching staff. Generally, though, he didn't depart from big-league managerial orthodoxy enough to merit much notice as a tactician.
The impassive Mazzilli also was accused of not showing enough fire when a borderline call went against the Orioles. He was not ejected from a game until midway through this season, when he vainly argued a home-run call that replays upheld as correct. Even then his emotion seemed contrived, as he went overboard by tossing a tray of gum onto the field afterwards, earning himself a two-game suspension that was later reduced to one on appeal. He also was thrown from a game last week for arguing a stolen-base call in the first inning (replays corroborated that call as well). That act—and from all appearances, it was an act—did nothing to fire up his team, as it turned out.
However, perhaps more damaging—at least to those who prefer their managers have spunk and animation—was Mazzilli's comportment during Monday's press conference discussing Palmeiro's suspension. He looked and sounded downright moribund, as if he were attending a wake. That raised questions about Mazzilli's ability to lift his team out of its doldrums and finish the season on a high note.
Some fans might think Mazzilli is getting a raw deal in that he is taking the fall for circumstances that are out of his control. That is true to an extent. But Mazzilli had enough time to show what he could do as a manager, and ultimately it wasn't enough to earn an extension of his contract. Meanwhile, Perlozzo is getting a well-deserved chance to manage a team, and if he can bring the Orioles back above .500 he may be the front-runner to assume the reins next season.
Miller time over?
Mazzilli's termination also calls into question whether pitching coach Ray Miller will return in 2006. On June 26, Miller told the media that he would return next year only if Mazzilli also was brought back. From the June 27 edition of the Sun:
"I'd like to see Maz get a long-term contract and be set here for a while, and I'll stay and help him as long as I can," Miller said before [the June 26] game against the Atlanta Braves. "I think he's going to be a good one. I think he's got the right makeup, knowledge. One-on-one, he's great. Patience with kids and he knows how to handle veterans.
"I'd like to see that happen, see some stability in Baltimore. And that will kind of dictate everything else."
Asked whether he would be more inclined to leave after the season if Mazzilli does, Miller said, "Probably."
Of course, that was before the Orioles' long slide out of contention. Has Miller's attitude changed as a result of Mazzilli's firing? And what about the rest of the coaching staff, all of whom are holdovers from the Mike Hargrove years? The Orioles will have to answer a lot of questions in the next few months.