Hemond remains unfazed by critics, spot in cellar Questions increase about job security

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you were sitting at Roland Hemond's desk this morning, would you be concerned that the desk might not be yours on Opening Day 1992?

You might if you craved security. As general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Hemond is not exactly awash in it right now.

Consider these observations to gnaw fingernails by:

* Hemond is 61, youthful for a shuffleboard champion but not the age at which baseball executives can expect lengthy contract extensions.

* He's in the final year of his contract, which costs the budget-conscious Orioles about $300,000 a year.

* He presides over a front office in which seemingly one of two employees wants his job. Assistant GM Doug Melvin has been in training for the team's top baseball post since he joined the Orioles five years ago. When Frank Robinson accepted a similar job yesterday, the Orioles became the only major-league team with two assistant general managers.

There is one other factor that could affect Hemond's future. His best efforts haven't turned around the Orioles. When Hemond arrived in Baltimore in November 1987, the Orioles were coming off their worst season in decades -- a 95-loss, sixth-place finish in the American League East. Four years later, they are last.

Robinson, who was fired as Orioles manager May 23, already paid the price for the woeful start. Now the klieg lights are shining on others in the Orioles front office, including Hemond. He hasn't turned the Orioles around, but should he be given the opportunity to keep trying?

One knowledgeable judge is Hemond. He has been in baseball for 40 years and a general manager on and off for the past 20. He knows a bang-up job when he sees one. What type of grade would he give himself?

Hemond may be the gentlest man in baseball, a sweet-tempered optimist who appreciates Norman Vincent Peale every bit as much as Cal Ripken. But he isn't at his best responding directly to reporters' questions.

"I do the best I know how at all times," Hemond said. "I also recognize there are times when you are doing your best job and it doesn't look that way."

Some Orioles fans aren't as charitable. Have you listened to the talk shows lately? There aren't too many calls to name the new ballpark after Hemond. More people want to know why the team ERA was over 5.00 recently and why Glenn Davis hasn't knocked in a run in six weeks.

Roland, they are blaming you.

"Really, I'm immune to that," he said. "I don't expose myself to situations that would have a deteriorating effect, like the talk shows. I just don't listen unless we're going well. That's smart, right? I'm not bragging. I'm just saying that's a smart approach, right? When things are going well, get more reinforcement."

Roland, they are blaming you.

"That doesn't bother me. I won't dodge anybody. You won't see any changes in my personality, because I know it goes with the territory."

But Roland . . .

"Before the season is over, the same people may be giving us accolades."

Hemond's future in Baltimore will be in the hands of a few Orioles executives, including team president Larry Lucchino. This week, Lucchino declined to be interviewed on the subject of his general manager's performance or future with the Orioles. Orioles principal owner Eli Jacobs has said he leaves all decisions regarding baseball employees to Lucchino.

Others who have worked with Hemond over the years say he brings talents and, at times, limitations to the job of general manager.

First, assets. Hemond earns his highest grades as a human being. People like him.

"They don't make nicer people than Roland Hemond," said David Dombrowski, general manager of the Montreal Expos, who was an assistant to Hemond with the Chicago White Sox. "He took me from Step 1 in the game. He was always there for me to learn from."

There are no statistics that rank baseball executives by the sports banquets they have attended or the fan letters they have answered. If there were, Hemond would be in the Hall of Fame.

Virtually every fan who writes the Orioles GM receives a personal reply. If the fan answers back, Hemond has been known to follow up with yet another thank-you note. More than one Orioles employee has observed that Hemond is the only baseball man they know who writes thank-you notes to thank-you notes.

He won't even guess how much fan correspondence crosses his desk in a year. "If I say, my superiors might think I am wasting too much time answering letters," he said, laughing.

In the front office, Hemond is a most uplifting presence, turning negatives into positives every 12 seconds. Ask him about the Orioles current problems, and he'll first convince you that there are no problems. Then you will rush to place your order for Orioles World Series tickets.

Melvin, Hemond's latest protege, points to this optimism as a key element in the Orioles' record turnaround of 1989. With Hemond furiously patting backs, the team improved 32 1/2 games.

"He brought in a nice, fresh, exuberant attitude to an organization that was down in the dumps," Melvin said. "The organization was down and out. I'm not sure there was anyone else in baseball who could have done what Roland did in '89."

Even during the glum days this season, Hemond has put the accent on the positive. An example: He is not wringing his hands about the injuries that have sidelined Ben McDonald and Davis, two Orioles who figured to be major contributors. Hemond said: "When Davis and McDonald are ready to contribute, it will be like we made a major trade, right?"

For some, Hemond's cheerleading style does not compensate for shortcomings to which the Orioles GM readily admits. Many major-league general managers prepare budgets, negotiate contracts and perform a number of other business duties. They also make trades and fiddle with the major-league roster.

Hemond doesn't do a budget and has limited authority to negotiate contracts. His job is to come up with the best 25 players around by constantly keeping in touch with Orioles scouts, friends from other teams and anybody else whose telephone number Hemond may have.

Hemond said he has a keen sense of what he does well and of other things he shouldn't attempt. Referring to the assistants and lawyers who surround him, Hemond said, "That's why you welcome good people around you who overcome your shortcomings."

Hemond has acquired a reputation for doing and saying the unexpected. In his short time in Baltimore, he has been at the center of a dozen anecdotes, most of which highlight Hemond's fits of forgetfulness.

Remember the incident in spring training when Hemond, spotting his rental car, drove off from the hotel? The car, and the briefcase in the back seat, belonged to Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro. Or how about the gift that Hemond received at the winter meetings a few years back -- a plaid sport jacket with extra pockets sewn on for keys, phone messages and the rest. Hemond has a reputation for misplacing those things, and almost anything.

No one laughs harder at the barbs than Hemond. "Those things aren't important. People are important," he said, referring to the lost keys and luggage.

When Hemond talks about his future in Baltimore, the laughter stops. He said he has not thought about retirement and prefers not to any time soon.

"I don't feel I am ready, but I don't want to stand in the way of youth," he said. "If an organization feels those who are preparing [for the GM's post] are ready, that's OK, too."

But Roland . . .

"You know what would be beautiful?" he said. "To have Frank or Doug someday be the one to replace me, rather than someone from the outside. They're my friends. They're my teammates. When the day comes that I am sitting on the porch watching the JTC birds go by, and they are having success, I will thrill at that."

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