Orioles shift to shore up Latin lineup


Carlos Bernhardt wasn't sure he recognized the name.

"Regan?" the Orioles' Dominican scout asked yesterday, fighting through a faulty phone connection.

Phil Regan.

Once managed in the Dominican, now manages the Orioles.

Suddenly, it hit Bernhardt.

"We had a big fight," he said.

A what?

"A big, big, big -- I mean, a big fight."

This was in the Dominican League, seven or eight years ago.

Bernhardt was a coach with Estrellas. Regan was manager of Azucareros.

There was a beanball war.

A bench-emptying brawl.

Bernhardt couldn't recall.

Was it actually Phil Regan?

"Don't put this in the paper," Bernhardt said, half-joking, half-pleading. "He'll fire me."

Bernhardt can relax.

The hiring of Regan represents the best possible news for the Orioles' Latin players and the scouts who signed them.

L As for the fight, well, Regan said he doesn't even remember.

What he does remember is 10 years of managing in the winter leagues and how they awakened him to the needs of Latin players.

"I've said that every American manager should go down there," Regan said yesterday. "It's changed my entire perspective, to realize andunderstand their position.

"You come back to the U.S., people say this person is moody, he's lazy, he doesn't do this, he doesn't do that -- you hear that all the time.

"But if you spend four or five months a year down there, you begin to understand. It's a different culture [in the United States], a different country.

"You say, 'Be at the ballpark at 5,' but they have to find their way to the ballpark. They don't speak the language. They don't eat well.

"It's no surprise to me they get moody. I get moody when I'm down there."

Whatever his mood, Regan represents a significant departure for the Orioles.

He speaks Spanish (though not fluently), and his world view extends beyond south of Bowie, all the way to the Caribbean.

Maybe now a Leo Gomez will crack the lineup on his own merits, not his owner's demands.

And maybe now a Sherman Obando will be judged on his offensive strengths, not his defensive weaknesses.

Johnny Oates and Co. were frantic to save their jobs and had little use for young players who might get them fired.

Latin players such as Jose Mesa fell into that category. So did erratic Americans such as Brad Pennington and Arthur Rhodes.

The new regime, with Regan replacing Oates and Mike Flanagan replacing Dick Bosman, surely will be more patient.

And, with Latin players, patience is where you start -- not just on the field, but in the front office, where the Orioles also are making progress.

On Sept. 15, owner Peter Angelos met for approximately 90 minutes with Baltimore attorney Mike Powers, the agent for most of the Orioles' Latin prospects.

Powers outlined his concerns, and suggested the Orioles hire a Latin American coordinator to help Latin players adjust to the United States.

Assistant GM Frank Robinson said he has lobbied for several years to add such a coordinator. Angelos apparently was receptive and told Powers to send a follow-up letter.

"We haven't done what we should have done [in promoting Latins]," Robinson said yesterday. "That's a fact, as far as I'm concerned."

Robinson wants the Orioles to increase their Latin American scouting, hire more Hispanic instructors and even require Spanish lessons for members of the front office.

It's time, don't you think?

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays plunged into the Dominican in the 1980s. The Texas Rangers established a stronghold in Puerto Rico. The Orioles still haven't caught up.

Former assistant GM Doug Melvin rebuilt the farm system. But for all their minor-league breakthroughs, the Orioles' dirty little secret was their lack of success with Latins.

"I would have liked to have done a little better job completing their development at the big-league level," said Melvin, now the GM in Texas.

Melvin, a Canadian, was the man responsible for player development, but the blame can't be placed on one individual.

It belongs to the entire organization.

Now, with Obando, Armando Benitez and Manny Alexander on the verge of the majors, and a slew of Dominican prospects in the lower minors, it's the perfect time for Regan.

"No doubt, he'll be able to help Benitez," Melvin said.

No doubt, he'll be a welcome sight for all the Latin players, many of whom will recognize him from winter ball.

"Phil relates well to everyone," said John Hart, Regan's former GM in Cleveland. "But he'll be successful with Latin players, no question.

"Everyone in the islands recognizes that Phil has been going down there for the last 10 years. There'll be a certain amount of respect the Latin players will give him -- and he'll earn it, too."

Heck, he already has it.

"I'm excited because of the experience he has with Latin players," said Obando, who played against Regan in Venezuela in 1992. "I have a lot of respect for the guy."

The Orioles asked each of their nine managerial candidates about their approach to Latin players. Regan's answers weren't the reason he was hired. But surely, they didn't hurt.

"You never have confrontations," Regan said. "You always want to make a way to solve the problem. Any time you have a confrontation, neither side wins -- you both get mad.

"Latin players are very fiery. They have a lot of pride. If you have a confrontation, a lot of times, you lose the ballplayer."

The Orioles have lost enough of them.

It's time to win them back.

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