NOT READY TO CHECK OUT Lucchino seems eager to enter post-Jacobs era

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Larry Lucchino could have headed for the Mediterranean last week, or Cancun or some Hawaiian resort. He cashed out on Monday and did very well in the deal that transferred ownership of the Orioles to the group headed by Peter G. Angelos. But he has shown up at 9 o'clock sharp every day, ready to go to work for his third owner in six years.

How long he will remain with the club has been the subject of wide speculation -- speculation that has put him in the Florida Marlins front office and even into the unlikely role of baseball commissioner. But Lucchino suddenly seems comfortable with whatever comes down the line.

His new title is vice chairman in charge of operations, though he continues to act in the role of club president while Angelos gradually gets a handle on the inner workings of the Orioles' front office. Eventually, Lucchino will move on or assume a different place in the chain of command, but he seems genuinely happy the organization is entering a new era.

Of course he's happy. He came out of the ownership transfer a millionaire, the main beneficiary of the highest price ever paid for a professional sports franchise. Of course he's more relaxed. The whole town breathed a sigh of relief when the ballclub finally was taken out of the hands of Eli Jacobs. The only thing that is even mildly surprising is that he is here and not sitting on the sand somewhere with a tiny umbrella in his drink.

"The reason that I'm not on the beach somewhere is because I am not a beach person," Lucchino said. "I'm a baseball person."

The reason he is here is because he wants to see this thing through. The Orioles developed into an American League East contender during the Jacobs era, even though the club was working under fiscal restraints that made it difficult to compete with the free-spending Toronto Blue Jays.

Lucchino played the good soldier throughout Jacobs' stormy tenure. He ended up caught in the middle of a war that developed between Jacobs and the local media. He was perceived as a corporate henchman, doing the bidding of an out-of-town owner who was more interested in what he could get out of the team than what he could put into it. It was not an easy job.

According to Lucchino, he and other club officials had to fight to put a representative team on the field. They even had to cajole a reluctant Jacobs into re-signing shortstop Cal Ripken, averting a public relations disaster.

Still, if you ask Lucchino to characterize the past five years, he will say it was a "satisfactory and productive business relationship" and point to the club's financial stability and its beautiful new stadium. He is still a good soldier.

By other accounts, his relationship with Jacobs was very unpleasant, but if there is any temptation to dish out some dirt now that the old owner is gone, he hides it well.

"Did Eli and I have disagreements? Of course we did," Lucchino said. "Did we battle over some things? Of course we did. But you have to look at the results."

The franchise is one of the most profitable in baseball, even though the Orioles are not a large-market team. Oriole Park is the envy of the major leagues. Jacobs ended up in financial ruin, but he left the club in excellent shape.

"I feel a sense of pride in what we've accomplished and I feel there will be even more success ahead," Lucchino said. "If I can help Peter Angelos achieve that, I will be equally proud."

Up-and-down era

Lucchino would rather look ahead, but there are several junctures in the Jacobs ownership period that remain largely unexplained. During the past five years the club has set single-season attendance highs four times, but it also has taken a roller-coaster ride through the AL East standings that hinged on some difficult front-office decisions.

The negotiations with Ripken stand out. Baseball's latter-day Iron Horse may be the most popular player in the history of the franchise, but Jacobs had his doubts about giving him the

biggest multi-year guarantee in the history of the game.

Allowing Ripken to leave the Orioles would have been a strategic error and public relations disaster, but Lucchino said he and general manager Roland Hemond had to persuade Jacobs of that before Jacobs would assent to giving Ripken $30.5 million to remain with the team for the next five years.

"Because of the significance of it, it was important that we demonstrate [to Jacobs] that there was strong support among the baseball people," Lucchino said. "He ultimately accepted a recommendation. Did we have to urge him? Yeah."

The Ripken negotiations dragged on for nearly a year, and the public outcry put the team on the defensive, but Lucchino will not second-guess the club's handling of the situation. If Ripken ended up with the largest guarantee in baseball history to that point, it was not because the Orioles finally stepped up, but Ripken and agent Ron Shapiro finally came down.

"It takes two to tango," Lucchino said. "Their early requests of us were quite a way from the $30.5 million that we ended up with."

'Missing piece' crumbles

Everything turned out for the best in that instance, but the trade that brought Glenn Davis to the Orioles for three top prospects continues to haunt the club.

Right-handed pitcher Curt Schilling, whose strong performance helped the Philadelphia Phillies win Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, would have looked pretty good in the Orioles' starting rotation this year. Pitcher Pete Harnisch and outfielder Steve Finley also have been sorely missed.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Lucchino rates that deal as the major disappointment of his tenure as Orioles president. No one could have known at the time that Davis would turn out to be a major mistake, and there is no way of knowing how much that mistake affected the club's front-office strategy in the years that followed.

"We, like the press, thought that he [Davis] was the missing piece of the puzzle," Lucchino said. "Obviously, it was a bad trade in retrospect. That doesn't stop you from being aggressive. You can't stop being aggressive."

But it appeared that the Orioles did just that. Jacobs was suspicious of big-ticket players to begin with, so the futile expenditure of talent and money on Davis had to have a chilling effect on his desire to make other high-priced acquisitions.

"Human nature being what it is, of course it had an impact on other decisions," Lucchino said, "but I wouldn't overestimate that."

The one decision that it had a direct impact upon was the deal two days later in which the Orioles traded Mickey Tettleton to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Jeff Robinson. Lucchino indicated that there was a direct financial connection between the two trades -- which was widely believed at the time -- but there also were legitimate baseball considerations involved.

Making room for Hoiles

In an unrestrained fiscal situation, Tettleton might have stayed as the designated hitter, but he was coming off a bad season and prospect Chris Hoiles was ready to catch.

"I certainly wanted to give Hoiles a chance to start," Lucchino said, "and who knew what we could get Tettleton for? His demands were very high."

Angelos doesn't figure to throw his money around unwisely, but he has made it clear that he will not need much persuading to make the necessary expenditures to improve the club. Lucchino seems excited about the possibility that the organization's resources will be more fully used in the future.

"I've heard from Peter and the ownership group of its commitments," Lucchino said. "I think that they will honor those commitments and make the next several years successful ones in a variety of different ways for the Baltimore Orioles -- both on and off the field."

Where Lucchino will fit into that future, however, remains undetermined. He was the No. 2 man in the Jacobs management team, but did not buy into the new ownership group. Vice chairman Bill DeWitt controls a significant ownership interest, so he may end up in a role that resembles the one Lucchino is filling.

What does future hold?

If that turns out to be the case, perhaps Lucchino will take that long vacation. Perhaps he will talk to some other team about a similar position. The Marlins still have not filled the vacancy left when club president Carl Barger died suddenly at last year's winter meetings. Perhaps he will be considered when the 26 baseball owners finally get down to choosing a new commissioner.

But don't count him out of Baltimore just yet. He managed to survive and even thrive in a difficult relationship with Jacobs, so he may find life pleasant in the more relaxed atmosphere that Angelos has created.

"I work because I like what I do," Lucchino said. "I derive a great deal of satisfaction from that work and I feel very connected to the city of Baltimore and the franchise and tradition of the Orioles.

"I'm looking to help Peter Angelos continue the success of the team and improve upon it. It's an economically healthy franchise and it has been competitive, but there also is room for great improvement and more success. This is a new and exciting time for the Orioles."

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