- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When a team loses 90 games a year and develops a culture of losing where a winning atmosphere once existed, something has to change.

Exit Mike Hargrove.

Enter Lee Mazzilli.

Hargrove, who never won more than 74 games in his four seasons as the Orioles manager, became synonymous with losing in Baltimore. The feeling ran so deep in the clubhouse that Orioles vice presidents Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie realized they needed to bring in someone who could change that attitude as much as the results.

Unlike Hargrove, Mazzilli spent the last four seasons in a winning culture as a coach for the New York Yankees. And when the Orioles’ players take the field tomorrow at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for the first full team workout of spring training, Mazzilli expects to change Baltimore’s recent mentality.

“We have tried to bring a winning attitude,” Flanagan said. “We felt coming on first we needed to address that in our nonplayer personnel. … That is one of the reasons that Mazzilli is here. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. I think there is absolutely a different atmosphere this spring. I can sense it from the players. I think everyone senses this is different.”

And Mazzilli understands.

“You want to change the attitudes from the day you get the job,” Mazzilli said as he sat in the dugout at the Fort Lauderdale complex after a quick but intense workout of pitchers and catchers. “It is very important to do that.”

He seems to have accomplished it. Beyond the usual euphoria of spring training, a time of new hopes and high expectations, the players who suffered through Baltimore’s losing seasons — six and counting, including a 71-91 record last year — truly believe they can play winning baseball this season.

“It is a totally different feeling,” outfielder Jay Gibbons said. “It is a night-and-day difference with Lee. He is very outgoing, and it seems like it will be a lot of fun. It is my fourth year, and already this feels different.”

It certainly was different this offseason.

The team signed free agents Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro. That was a change from the days when former Orioles vice president Syd Thrift complained the team must be using “confederate money” because no quality free agents wanted to sign with Baltimore.

“It was very exciting to see all the players we were signing this winter,” second baseman Jerry Hairston said. “It was refreshing to see our front office is taking the initiative to make this club better. We are a lot stronger this season with Rafe and Miguel and Javy.”

No question the Orioles’ lineup will be stronger with the addition of the three veteran players, who combined for 108 home runs and 327 RBI last season. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the players and additional $100million for new contracts will be enough to compete with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

Regardless, the free agent signings put the franchise back in the public eye for the right reasons. A year ago the Orioles were the center of attention following the tragic death of 23-year-old pitcher Steve Bechler.

This spring much of the focus will be on Mazzilli — the charismatic, good-looking New Yorker who has yet to manage in the major leagues. The fans, of course, will be watching for results, but the players are sizing up Mazzilli now. So far they are impressed.

“When I first sat down and talked to Maz, you could tell that energy that he had and the enthusiasm he had for this job,” Hairston said. “You can see in his eyes he is going to make the most of this opportunity.”

Flanagan and Beattie saw it, too, and it was the biggest reason they chose Mazzilli over a group of candidates that included former Orioles great Eddie Murray and Baltimore coaches Sam Perlozzo and Rick Dempsey.

Mazzilli is a power-of-positive-thinking proponent, which must have been difficult to practice while he played on some bad New York Mets teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He returned to the Mets in 1986 and helped them win the World Series.

“You want to change the attitude the day you get the job,” he said. “I think the players notice a change. It is very important to do that. We keep talking about winning, that is what you come here to do. It is not fun when you go through losing seasons. I’ve been there with the Mets when they were a rebuilding team. It’s very hard to come into spring training knowing in all probability you are going to lose 90 games. That’s not a good feeling to have.”

That was the feeling in Fort Lauderdale the past few seasons but not this year. Whether Mazzilli’s team attitude adjustment translates to winning results on the field will depend, for the most part, on starting pitching.

But after Sidney Ponson, whom Mazzilli named the Opening Day starter, there are no proven winners competing for jobs in the rotation. The Orioles hope Rodrigo Lopez, coming off a disappointing 7-10 season last year, can regain his winning form (15-9, 3.57 ERA) from his rookie season two years ago. They also hope Omar Daal can recover from arm problems last year and that among Eric DuBose, 27, Kurt Ainsworth, 25, and Matt Riley, 24, at least two of them will be ready for major league action. Of course, there is always a chance the front office could swing a deal to bring in a veteran starter before the season begins.

“I guess all the rotation spots are open,” Mazzilli said of the biggest challenge facing him and pitching coach Mark Wiley. “There are a lot of guys on this team who know they will have to earn what they get. Nothing is going to be given to them. They are all competing for jobs. Sometimes it is better for the team when they don’t know.”

If nothing else, the unknowns allow everyone here to embrace the positive vibes coming from the manager’s office until April4, when they take the field opening night at Camden Yards against Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox. And that’s when the power of positive thinking will go up against the power of a 96 mph fastball.

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