Lion of winter, Regan wins over angry den Latin love affair

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Caracas, Venezuela -- Blend the electricity of a Duke University basketball crowd with the pugnacity of New York Rangers fans. Now turn up the volume and sustain it for nine innings. Mix in blasting caps hurled from the stands onto the grass in foul territory, children running onto the outfield for autographs between innings, beers flying. Welcome to a Venezuelan League baseball game featuring the nation's No. 1 sports rivalry: Magallanes vs. Caracas.

On his way to first base, Alvaro Espinoza flings his batting helmet in the direction of Caracas pitcher Mike Zimmerman, payback for being hit by a pitch in his previous at-bat. Caracas Lions manager Phil Regan springs out of the dugout, gets in the face of an umpire, and unleashes a head-gyrating, spit-flying, finger-pointing tirade, in Spanish. He returns to the dugout to a standing ovation.

Later, the final out is made and Caracas, the home team, has defeated Magallanes, 3-2. The stands transform into a dance floor. Kids jump onto the field and swarm Regan as he makes his way toward the dugout. After Regan showers, autograph seekers encircle him, one troop giving way to the next.

Clearly, Regan, named last month to replace Johnny Oates as Orioles manager, is a man revered by the baseball fans of Caracas, Venezuela's largest city. But it wasn't always so. There was a time, not so long ago, Regan was vilified by the same people who now lionize him.

Step inside the Caracas Lions' locker room.

The laundered uniform hangs undisturbed, a bastion of freshness amid the must. A steel cross, red rosary beads and an oversized baseball card with the inscription "Baudilio Diaz, Estrella Venezolana, 1954-1990" rim the locker.

Indeed, former major-league catcher Bo Diaz not only was a Venezuelan star, but also a national hero, a source of great pride for a country that counts oil and baseball talent among its most cherished resources. The oil still flows, but Diaz was taken away from Venezuela in tragic fashion.

On Nov. 23, 1990, Diaz was on the roof of his house when the satellite dish he was adjusting fell on him and broke his neck. He was dead at 37. A nation asked, "Why so young? Why?" To many, the answer was simple. Phil Regan, that's why.

Two days before his death, Diaz had stormed off the field and quit the team after a pre-game argument with Regan. Regan found himself accused of contributing to the death of a national hero.

"It was a Wednesday, and Bo wasn't in the lineup," Regan recalled. "I told him to go down to the bullpen and warm up a pitcher. He wouldn't respond, kept walking. I told him if he was going to be on this team, he was going to have to work as hard as everyone else. He went crazy, took his uniform off and quit.

"That Friday at about 4, when he would have been out at the ballpark, he died," Regan said. "A lot of people told me if I hadn't kicked him off the team, which I didn't, he would still be alive."

"Those were tough times," said Caracas infielder and team leader Jesus Alfaro, 36. "Everybody tried to blame Phil for what happened to Bo. I was mad, too. Then I realized it was not Phil's fault. It was nobody's fault. When God wants to bring you up, he's going to bring you up. Everybody realized Phil was one of the guys who was hurt most inside. I saw Phil Regan cry.

"That was not easy for Phil to finish that season, but he did. And he kept coming back. We're going to miss him. Phil means a lot to us, every one of us. That man knows a lot of baseball. He taught us how to play this game right. You want to play hard for him."

Regan's players have been playing hard for him in Caracas for six seasons now. He has been charged with maintaining order amid the confusion. Before that, Regan spent four seasons in the Dominican Republic, building a resume that would land him the Orioles managing job.

Basic training

How will his experience in Latin America translate into the major leagues?

Quite well, says Orioles and Magallanes left-hander Jim Poole.

"The pressure from the media, the fans and ownership down here easily compares to what he'll face in the major leagues," Poole said. "Here, it's almost like you feel a physical endangerment if you don't do well."

Media pressure?

After Diaz's death, headlines blamed Regan. He was asked to explain himself with live television cameras rolling.

"I said sometimes you have to learn to discipline your children, too, but that doesn't mean you don't love them," Regan said.

Fan pressure?

Even as popular as Regan has become, he hears many nasty remarks shouted from fans seated directly behind the dugout when his team does not perform well.

Ownership pressure?

Lions owner Oscar Prietto sometimes meets Regan for breakfast and can be found in the clubhouse and dugout daily, even during games.

A dentist who specializes in treating handicapped children, Prietto serves as the Lions' owner/general manager/traveling secretary/maintenance man.

"I relax when I do the dental work," Prietto said in the dugout before a recent game. "This baseball is a crazy business. You have to work 24 hours a day in this business. Baseball is a drug, and it's like you become an addict. You want to quit, but you can't. I want to get out of baseball, but I can't. You wouldn't believe the things I have to deal with."

Moments later, the clubhouse dryer exploded into flames and Prietto's reaction had a distinctly "Oh no, not again," ring to it.

"For me, Phil Regan is better than 24, 25 major-league managers," Prietto said. "If Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland are the best, then I think Regan is in the same league. He should have been managing in the majors three or four years ago."

Instead, Regan continued to manage winter baseball.

"I've enjoyed it down here," he said. "I'm going to miss it."

He'll miss the calico cat that roams the clubhouse, keeping it free of rodents; the lazy dog that lounges on the infield grass until moments before game time, then takes in the game from the stands, 20 rows behind home plate; Lezama, the team's 75-year-old human mascot, who has been following the team for 47 years, at home and on the road; the mountain beyond the outfield fences, the one that forever changes colors.

Dangerous job

He won't miss the danger. Three years ago, during a playoff game on the road, the crowd celebrating the home team's late-inning lead pelted Caracas right fielder Oscar Azocar with rocks. Play was interrupted 10 minutes and an announcement was made warning of the possibility of a forfeit by the home team if order was not restored in the stands.

Rocks continued to fly, the game was called, and Caracas, trailing 8-3 in the eighth, was awarded the win.

The masses, including many who saw their bets turn sour, erupted, according to several participants.

"We hurried onto the bus, and by the time we got out of the parking lot, every window was broken," Regan said. "I was sitting in the front seat with Oscar right next to me. We all had broken glass in our laps. The bus driver knocked the gate down, tore the fender off a car, and got us to the airport. We had to go back a week later, and the police met us at the airport, right at the plane. We had armed guards at the hotel through the night, and they took us to the ballpark in paddy wagons, seven to a wagon."

Said Alfaro: "We lost, 1-0. We're up there afraid if we get a hit we'll get killed. That's no way to play baseball."

But it's better than playing no baseball at all, which was what the Lions were forced to do at the beginning of two recent seasons. The Lions' baseball stadium is owned by the University of Central Venezuela, an autonomous territory in which local police have no jurisdiction.

"The students locked the gates and wouldn't let us in and we missed the first three games of the season," a smiling Regan said. "They wanted more money for concessions."

Learning patience

During games, Regan, 57, stays on his feet for nine innings and constantly offers encouragement. But when Nestor Serrano, one the youngest players on the team, attempted to put down a sacrifice bunt on a 3-and-0 count, Regan swatted a row of batting helmets. He saved the lecture, however, for the next day.

"I'm not as quick to jump on a player as I was when I started managing," Regan said. "I've learned to talk to them the next day. I was pretty intense when I first started, but I've found it's better to talk to them the next day. He knows when he

makes a mistake, and it gives you a chance to be a little more settled down."

Regan arrives at the ballpark by 2:30 p.m. every day, five hours before game time. He mixes easily with his players and rarely holds meetings. His one-on-one disciplinary talks generally take place when he roams the outfield and infield during batting practice.

He said he believes in using his bench often, a practice driven home when he pitched for the 1969 Chicago Cubs.

"We used the same lineup every day and played all those day games," Regan said. "We were worn out by the time September came around. We were up five games with 25 days left and lost by eight games. That's a swing of 13 games in 25 days. That shows you a team is never out of it."

It also showed Regan the value of using the bench.

"I'm going to try to use everyone a couple of days a week," Regan said. "It keeps everyone sharp and keeps everyone's spirits up, makes everyone feel like part of the team."

Regan favors a team rich in pitching and speed, such as the ones he pitched for with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was during the 1966 season that Dodgers teammate Sandy Koufax branded Regan "The Vulture," the moniker by which he is known in Venezuela.

"Koufax struck out 16 in 11 innings in a game against [Philadelphia's Jim] Bunning and left with the score tied 1-1," Regan said. "I came in in the 12th, we scored a run and I got the win.

"Four days later, Koufax struck out 10 in eight innings and left with the score tied 1-1. I came in, pitched an inning and got another win. I pitched two innings and got two wins. Sandy struck out 26 in 19 innings and didn't have anything to show for it. He said, 'Regan, you're a real vulture.' The press got ahold of it, and, before you knew it, people were mailing me rubber vultures and one guy even wanted to bring me a vulture from a California zoo."

Regan has been throwing a baseball or instructing others to do so for as long as he can remember. He grew up on a 40-acre farm in Wayland, Mich., where there was no organized baseball until he pitched as a teen-ager for an American Legion team. Regan improvised, building a mound alongside a barn and painting a strike zone on the wall.

An all-state football end and basketball player, Regan turned down a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame in favor of a basketball/baseball scholarship to Western Michigan, where he spent one year before signing with the Detroit Tigers as a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander.

After his playing career, Regan spent 10 years coaching the baseball team and teaching a baseball class at Grand Valley State College in Grand Rapids, Mich. It was then, when he put his thoughts on paper, he said, that he began to understand the game at a deeper level.

From there, he became a pitching coach with the Seattle Mariners, then a scout, for seven years, with the Dodgers. As a scout, Regan learned to trust his eyes, not his ears.

Handling pressure

After 10 years in Latin America, what everyone wants to know about Regan is: Can he handle the pressure of a major-league managing job?

The same question was asked of 1994 National League Manager of the Year Felipe Alou, who took his first major-league managing job at 56. Dave Jauss, Regan's third base coach in Venezuela and a former understudy of Alou's, has no doubt about Regan's readiness.

"All the good ones have that no-fear factor," Jauss said. "As far as the no-fear factor, as far as the man, they are very similar. And they both know pitching well."

Terry Collins, who had a successful rookie managing season for the Houston Astros in 1994, managed in the minors and Latin America.

"He's real ready," Collins said of Regan. "The one thing about managing down here which prepares you better than managing in the minors is you have to win or you'll be on your way home. And now isn't a good time to see the pressure. Come back in January, when 35,000 people are in the stands and there is fighting and betting on every pitch."

The regular season is 60 games long and players can earn almost as much money in the playoffs as the season, which adds to the pressure.

But through it all, the pressure to win, the local political turmoil, the coming and going of players, Regan has maintained an upbeat attitude.

"I really didn't get a chance to do much that wasn't related to baseball down here," Regan said. "Sometimes, I kick myself. I've been down here six years, and I easily could have gone to Aruba on an off day, but I never did. There was always a hitter who needed extra work, or a pitcher who had to throw on the side."

Seeing Aruba wasn't his purpose for managing in Venezuela. Landing a major-league job was his goal. Mission accomplished.

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