- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

When Lee Mazzilli gets a call on his cell phone, the tone that rings is the theme from “The Godfather.”

Yesterday when his phone rang, it was very appropriate because he was getting whacked as manager of the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles fired the man to whom, nearly 20 months ago, they made an offer he couldn’t refuse. He couldn’t refuse it because, contrary to the spin the Orioles put on Mazzilli being a candidate in demand, there was probably nobody else who was going to make him an offer to manage a major league team.

Not this guy, whose biggest accomplishment, after four years as a coach for Joe Torre in New York, was that he knew how to get home from Yankee Stadium to Greenwich, Conn., in record time.

Really, if you had held a poll among those in and around the Yankees’ organization about which coach would wind up with a major league job first, Frank Crosetti might have wound up ahead of Mazzilli. And I think he is dead.

So the biggest question on the day Mazzilli lost his job was not why he was fired, but why he was hired in the first place. This is a more puzzling mystery than how steroids wound up in Rafael Palmeiro’s body, although the truth may be just as elusive.

In November 2003, after the Orioles’ front-office duo of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan determined that Mike Hargrove didn’t have enough fire to lift the Orioles to greater heights and fired him, Lee Mazzilli was hired.

He was chosen over Sam Perlozzo, the longtime Orioles coach who now has the interim managing job. He was hired over Eddie Murray, the Orioles icon. He was hired over Terry Francona, if you can believe it. He was hired over former Orioles Rich Dauer and Rick Dempsey, the latter a fan favorite.

Why was this New Yorker with no major league managing experience — he had some success over three minor league seasons and after that was known primarily as the first-base greeter for Torre’s Yankees for four years — the choice by Beatagan to manage this team?

Why would this front-office duo put their jobs on the line, with the most important decision that they would make, by picking an unproven manager?

Because, they said, he blew them away in the interview.

“When we got through [with Mazzilli’s interview], we both went, ‘The search is over,’ ” Flanagan said when they announced Mazzilli’s hiring. And Beattie said, “Lee is a winner. It came through in his interview. He talked about how on a daily basis, it starts and ends with winning. He’s not just going to go out and compete.”

Now, for anyone who has ever spoken to Mazzilli for any length of time, this is a more preposterous explanation than the franchise’s star player declaring he didn’t know how steroids wound up in his body. (Quite a week for the Orioles franchise, wasn’t it?) If Mazzilli truly blew anybody away, it was the highlight of his communication skills, because there has been no evidence of such stunning performances since, either reportedly inside or outside the clubhouse.

Inside the clubhouse, a veteran Orioles squad had crossed off their manager last season. They had little regard for his ability and no regard for his resume and, even through the winning first half of this season, chalked it up to winning in spite of Mazzilli and not because of him. (The players even had a meeting to declare their intention to win in spite of their manager.)

So did Lee Mazzilli really “blow them away,” as Beatagan claimed, or was this another Peter Angelos-driven move? The Orioles went out of their way when Mazzilli was hired to paint the picture that the Orioles owner had doubts and that Mazzilli wasn’t his choice. But that story was never plausible.

Why, if Beatagan felt so strongly about their choice for manager, didn’t they let him pick his coaching staff? They dealt him a losing hand from the start, saddling him with two coaches — Perlozzo and Dempsey — who he had beaten out for the job. He didn’t have anyone in the coaches’ room who owed their job to Mazzilli, and it only served to undermine whatever chance he had to establish his authority in the clubhouse.

Also, one of those coaches told me a story, when Mazzilli was hired, about an encounter he had with Mazzilli in New York that September — nearly two months before he was interviewed for the job — when the Orioles were playing the Yankees.

“This guy who had never given me the time of day before suddenly comes up with a big hello and asks me how I am doing and all this, as if he knew something was coming,” the coach said.

If there is a link between Mazzilli and Angelos, no one has been able to make it. And if there was a connection, it ended yesterday after Mazzilli’s team, which had been in first place in the American League East from late April through June, had lost 16 of its last 18 games and dropped to a 51-56 record and fourth place, 101/2 games out of first place.

I wonder if they let him take the cannolis?

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