Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Charles Dillon Stengel, the only former left-handed dentist to win 10 pennants in 12 seasons, once defined the secret to managerial success as “keeping the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”

That’s probably a good idea, but it isn’t the whole story. Being a successful manager at the major league level requires the patience of a saint, the wisdom of a Solomon and the tact of a man whose wife asks his opinion of a new outfit.

And even these qualities might not be enough. Another prime requisite is knowledge of how hard and how often to boot a player’s rear when the occasion demands — even when the player is 50 pounds heavier, 30 years younger and 10 times as highly paid.

Sam Perlozzo’s firing as skipper of the Orioles should have been no surprise to him or anyone else. Managers and coaches are on the employment bubble from the day they take the job. Today’s strategic wizard is tomorrow’s bum, especially when your boss is a trigger-happy dude like Peter Angelos.

It remains to be seen whom Angelos and his minions will choose to be this agonized franchise’s eighth manager since King Peter became principal owner in 1993, but I guarantee you one thing: It will be somebody so tough that he sleeps on a bed of needles and chews nails for a snack.

Perlozzo was perceived to be a nice guy, a “player’s manager” as the expression goes. His 2½ seasons were a huge flop (122-164), so now the O”s will turn to a certified rump-kicker. Joe Girardi, the ex-Marlins boss, has been prominently mentioned. The Baltimore Sun took a journalistic flyer and resurrected the name of Davey Johnson, though I doubt he’s dumb enough to work for Angelos a second time.

I’ve got it — how about Atilla the Hun or a distant descendant. Let”s see Peter boss him around.

That”s the way it works particularly in baseball. If the type of guy you have ain’t getting it done, go the other way. Usually, you have nothing to lose, except perhaps a few more disgruntled fans.

The Orioles provide prima facie evidence of this theory. When martinet Earl Weaver retired in 1982, they won a pennant the next season with easygoing Joe Altobelli in nominal charge. When “my way of the highway” Frank Robinson wore out his welcome in 1991, they tapped gentle Johnny Oates. When clueless Phil Regan flopped big-time in 1995, Angelos brought in Johnson. And so it goes.

But as everybody except baseball owners seems to know, hiring the right manager is only part of the puzzle. Managers always get too much credit or too much blame. A good one might mean five more wins and a bad one five more losses in a season — in other words a small difference. It’s the players who win or lose pennants.

You want proof? How about Stengel, a genius with the Yankees, who did nothing but lose with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves before and the expansion New York Mets afterward? Once when Casey was with the Braves, a taxi driver ran him down and broke his leg. An unsympathetic columnist promptly suggested the cabbie be named Boston”s baseball man of the year.

How about Connie Mack, a baseball icon if there ever was one? He managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years (he also owned the club) and won nine pennants. Brilliant guy, right? Then how come he also finished last 17 times?

How about Bucky Harris, who led the original Washington Senators to pennants in his first two seasons and won just one more in 27 subsequent years with four clubs?

This could go on and on, but you get the idea. If clothes make the man, players make the manager.

The rap against Perlozzo was that he “lost the clubhouse,” meaning his players paid him no heed. It has been obvious most of the season that most of the O’s were playing merely for their oversized paychecks instead of for pride and their fans. Run out ground balls? Encourage teammates? Give yourself up at the plate to advance a runner? Why bother?

The Orioles’ problems go far beyond the manager, though. This is a franchise in total disarray and has been for years. General managers, other executives, field managers and short-range plans come and go, while Angelos sits at the top of the junk pile and wonders why they don’t win.

There is a stark contrast between this helter-skelter management and what appears to be the Nationals’ calm, reasoned method of building from the ground up and for the long-range future. In a few years, the clubs at opposite ends of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway may serve as textbook examples of how to build and not to build a contending team.

No matter whom the Orioles pick as their next manager/victim, it probably won’t bring much of a change — not until significant repairs are made elsewhere. Maybe Sam Perlozzo was lucky. He got out, although involuntarily, when the getting was good.

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