Season changes, but will Orioles? GM, manager choices will shape winter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond spotted a reporter before the final game of the 1995 season yesterday and he charged, hands outstretched, and placed one on each of the man's shoulders. His voice conveying panic, Hemond asked frantically, "What's happening?! What's happening?!"

And then Hemond laughed -- a well-timed joke. Someone in Hemond's position usually wouldn't crack jokes: He doesn't know what's going to happen in the days to come, whether he'll be fired, whether manager Phil Regan will be retained, what will happen to assistant general manager Frank Robinson, what direction the team will take.

In their own defense, they can all say the Orioles, a team eventually bogged down in its own inconsistency, finished strongly. Mike Mussina yesterday shut out the Detroit Tigers, 4-0, the fifth consecutive shutout for the Orioles, which ties a league record.

The victory was the 19th of the year for Mussina, a league high; his second consecutive shutout; a league-best fourth shutout for the year. The five-game winning streak is the first in more than two years for the Orioles, who finished the year with 71 wins, 73 losses.

"Personally, I think it's great for us that we came back and finished with the record we did, all things considered," said Regan. "I don't feel bad about the job done here."

He'll get a chance to make his case this week, in a meeting with owner Peter Angelos that likely will take place tomorrow or Wednesday. (Regan called Angelos yesterday morning to set up a specific time, and they'll talk again today once they check their respective schedules.) Hemond's summit with Angelos could occur tomorrow, as well.

"We're going to go through our meetings this week," Angelos said yesterday. "We'll talk, we'll evaluate the situation, and then we'll make our decisions."

The manager

The chances of Regan returning seem better than Hemond's chances for survival. A month ago, the manager appeared to be in trouble, booed lustily by Camden Yards faithful as he directed a terribly disappointing team picked by many to win the AL East.

But in the last weeks of the season, after they were eliminated from contention, the Orioles' play improved. The jeers dissipated, and the team started winning, taking 12 of its final 15 games.

"I know we haven't been playing the toughest caliber of baseball, Milwaukee and Detroit," said catcher Chris Hoiles, "but we've played well. We've pitched well, and we've put a lot of runs on the board. . . . I think we've shown what we're capable of."

Hemond said: "I think [Regan] did a very fine job. The man had everything against him, in regards to a shortened spring. . . . We've made progress in the last month."

Regan said: "If I had to do it over again, about the only thing I would do differently is maybe keep some starting pitchers in there a little longer."

Even if Regan's meeting with Angelos goes well -- and whenever Regan has met with Orioles officials, he's helped himself, whether in his interview or in his one in-season meeting with Angelos in June -- that doesn't necessarily mean Angelos won't consider alternatives.

Big-name alternatives.

From today until Oct. 12, Oakland manager Tony La Russa can void the last year of his contract with the Oakland Athletics, no strings attached. As the season waned, the rumor mill around baseball churned with speculation that the Chicago White Sox would compete with the Orioles for La Russa's services.

But yesterday, the White Sox announced Terry Bevington will come back to manage in 1996. Angelos could call La Russa today, if he so chose, and if the Orioles owner pursued La Russa, his only competition might be the St. Louis Cardinals. (La Russa told a friend yesterday morning he has no idea what will take place in the next 10 days.)

Or Angelos could wait to talk to Davey Johnson, expected to be set free by the Cincinnati Reds. Buck Showalter, too, could be available, if the Yankees are blitzed in the playoffs and fickle New York owner George Steinbrenner blames his manager.

The general manager

Hemond, who, as the general manager of the White Sox, hired La Russa for his first managerial job almost 20 years ago, could be an asset if Angelos wanted La Russa. Beyond that, however, the signs are clear that Angelos is at least considering a change.

He asked for permission a month ago to interview San Diego general manager Randy Smith and Cleveland assistant GM Dan O'Dowd as general manager candidates. Smith resigned from his job with the Padres last week, and within 24 hours after that news became public, an Orioles official attempted to contact San Diego CEO Larry Lucchino for clarification on Smith's status.

The Padres are expected to announce today that Smith and the team officially have severed ties, and then Angelos could talk to Smith.

Turned down in his effort to talk to O'Dowd the first time, Angelos could try again (although club sources indicated that is a long shot). He is expected to talk to departing Montreal GM Kevin Malone sometime in the next few weeks.

In the interim, Hemond will wait, his contract set to expire in 29 days.

"I really don't know what's going to happen," Hemond said. "I'm proud of the club, the way they closed so brilliantly."

Somebody asked Hemond when organizational meetings will begin. "We haven't set any," he said, because he's not sure of his status. "You don't have organizational meetings until you know your organization."

Hemond said that he wishes he "hadn't heard about" Angelos' pursuit of Smith and O'Dowd.

"If [I] wasn't aware, it wouldn't bother me. Sure, I was a little disappointed," he said.

But, in talking with reporters, Hemond, 65, laughed and smiled and assured them that he would be all right, that he would wish Angelos the best even if he were fired, and that he wants to stay in baseball regardless.

"I've got a lot of baseball left in me," he said.

The players

Whether it's Smith, who appears to be the front-runner, or Malone or Hemond, the Orioles will be busy this off-season.

There are plans to talk to second basemen Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio, both free agents ("Signing Alomar, that's not a wish list," Hoiles said, "that's a dream"), plans to upgrade the bullpen. A club official approached pitcher Scott Erickson in the last days of the season and asked if he has any interest in a long-term contract.

The late burst of victories has the players already looking ahead. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a few wins over a short period of time, shortstop Cal Ripken said, applying the appropriate qualifiers.

"But we've been playing very well. The pitching staff has been dominating -- Mussina, Erickson and [Kevin] Brown, Jimmy Haynes coming up from the minors and throwing well. Then you throw Ben McDonald into the mix. . . . It's not too far-fetched to say that would be nice to have for a full season."

Exactly what changes will take place, who will affect the changes and who will manage these changes: to be determined at a ballpark near you.

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