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Rolling with punches Frank Wren: The first-time general manager feels prepared for his task with the Orioles. It took a brain tumor as a player, a near-miss at the Padres' GM job and more to get here.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been nearly 20 summers since outfielder Frank Wren left West Palm Beach's Municipal Stadium following a Florida State League game, climbed into his car and merged onto Interstate 95. Traveling light, Wren carried the career goal of moving himself up the Montreal Expos' minor-league food chain and onto the major-league roster, a long shot for someone projected as an "organizational player" when signed to a negligible contract out of junior college.

Barely 21, Wren suddenly felt violently ill. He pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and began to vomit. Excruciating pain seared through his head. Though he didn't realize it then, Wren's life had changed.

Introduced Oct. 23 as the ninth -- and youngest -- general manager in Orioles history, the boyish-looking Wren arrives only because of the events that began that night.

It was the start of a three-year odyssey that not only threatened Wren's playing career but also jeopardized his life. The subsequent career quirks bring Wren, 40, to Camden Yards perhaps uniquely qualified to heal an opulent but fractured franchise.

Never able to realize his ambition to become a major-league player, Wren instead settled for a spectrum of experience that fostered scouting, player development and computer skills. He sold programs and outfield signage as a minor-league general manager, helped transform an infant franchise into a world champion and then carried out the painful order to tear it down.

"I'm at a place," he says, "I never could have envisioned 20 years ago."

Seven years after joining the Florida Marlins as assistant general manager, three years after nearly being hired by the San Diego Padres as general manager and one October after celebrating a world championship, the handsome son of Hoosier dairy farmers has been awarded the most expensive clubhouse in baseball history and told to make it right.

Wren assumes stewardship of what he describes as a "most unique" opportunity created by "the best stadium in the game, fans that are among the most loyal if not the most loyal, and ownership willing to do whatever it takes to win."

U-turn on professional path

The opportunity is a long way from a harrowing roadside illness that forever altered his life.

Hospitalized for several weeks, Wren was told he might have meningitis. But then doctors discounted that diagnosis. Wren was discharged when the symptoms abated and allowed to return to the field.

Wren missed eight weeks of the season before recovering. "The verdict seemed to be that it was some kind of fluke. I never really got any firm answers," he says.

Though blessed with only average speed and ordinary power, Wren's versatility enabled him to jump from low Single-A to Double-A within a year of his hospitalization. Today, an MRI probably would discover the walnut-sized growth that was attaching itself to the spinal cord at the base of the skull. Instead, Wren returned to play the entire 1980 season, oblivious to his festering condition.

"His tools weren't seen as outstanding but everything played above where he was rated. There are a lot of major-league players like that," says Colorado Rockies scouting director Pat Daugherty, Wren's second manager at Jamestown (N.Y.) of the New York-Penn League and one of the most influential people in his baseball education.

Wren, then 23, started the 1981 season at Daytona Beach before his symptoms reappeared. He was moved to a hospital in St. Petersburg and found to have a brain tumor that was hemorrhaging.

"It changed the direction of my career," Wren recalls. "I'm not going to say I would have been a great major-league player. Knowing what I do now, I don't think I would have ever been a major-league player. But it was my goal."

To remove the tumor, doctors had to go through Wren's throat. No guarantees were offered that Wren would emerge fully functional or even live through it.

The surgery preserved his life but virtually finished Wren's playing career. When he returned to Daytona Beach. Wren experienced double vision and could no longer track a fly ball.

"I wasn't a good player anymore. It was no longer fun," says Wren. "I never really looked back because I wasn't enjoying it."

From field to dugout

Wren accepted an offer to coach at Jamestown and arrived wearing an eye patch designed to rectify his vision problems. He worked under Daugherty for three years, envisioning his next step as minor-league manager.

The offer finally came in 1985 from Expos assistant minor-league director Bob Gebhard, now the Rockies' general manager. However, the opportunity disappeared when the Expos folded one of their affiliates. Wren instead was offered the chance to serve as Jamestown's general manager.

"It was totally foreign to what I thought my career would be," says Wren. "I was hoping to one day become a major-league coach and then see what would happen. It was sold to me as a good career move, but I didn't see it that way."

Citing his own experiences, Expos general manager Murray Cook persuaded Wren to take the job. He was impressive enough that then-Expos director of player development Jim Fanning predicted to Wren that he would be a major-league GM within 10 years.

"He's a bright guy who understands the game from a playing standpoint. He can do anything," says Fanning, now a Rockies scout.

Within four years, Wren was named assistant scouting director then handed additional responsibilities of supervising the Expos' director of Latin American scouting and operations, which included a training facility in the Dominican Republic.

A proving ground for a number of young executives, the Expos were aggressive in scouting and player development. At 32, Dave Dombrowski graduated to vice president of player personnel in 1988. When Dombrowski was named the Marlins' first general manager in September 1991, he waited only 11 days before hiring Wren as his assistant.

"Once I became an assistant general manager I set a personal goal of becoming a general manager by the time I was 40. There were a couple times when I thought it would happen. I really felt it was an attainable goal," Wren says.

"I was able to cross over into every department on the way up. I started as a player, went into player development and minor-league operation, went to the scouting department, went into the Latin American department and then the major-league department. I spent a minimum of three years in every one of them. I think that's a pretty unique quality," he says.

Near-miss in San Diego

Wren almost beat Fanning's timetable in 1995 when he was offered the job as Padres general manager. However, his push to make significant internal changes caused the club to rethink its position, revoke its offer and instead promote scouting director Kevin Towers, a younger man than Wren.

"I know now I wasn't nearly as well prepared then as I am now," Wren says.

"I learned a great deal from that situation. The first thing I learned is that as a first-time general manager you can't call the shots of a veteran GM. You have to go in and be adaptable. You've got your own ideas and ways you do things, but that only goes so far. I think as first-time GM you have to accept that," says Wren.

At the same time, Wren resents insinuations he has been hired as a lackey by an ownership with little use for independent thinking.

Of his interview with majority owner Peter Angelos, Wren says, "I asked tough questions of Peter and he asked tough questions of But at the same time, it's not a negative to be able to work with people."

The three years since his near-miss in San Diego have helped him deal with a variety of situations, some exhilarating, others traumatic. The mandated purge of talent in Florida remains a sore topic, especially when he is classified as an enthusiastic henchman.

"Frank has experienced more -- good and bad -- than many baseball people have in twice the amount of time," Daugherty says.

Those who know him well insist Wren is intelligent enough to adapt to any situation -- "He can wire your house for you if need be," says Daugherty -- and engaging enough to create a consensus where rancor might otherwise occur.

Angelos, and the task ahead

While Angelos has not spoken publicly about his new hire, club officials say it was his "gut feeling" about Wren that caused him to offer the job. The opportunity fulfills the predictions of many who have met him. Signed to a three-year contract, it now falls to Wren to fulfill predictions of success.

"It's a challenge for anybody," states Dombrowski. "Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, but here's someone who has been exposed to every facet of the organization. He has dealt with scouts, player development, the media. He has involvement with computers. Maybe somebody who has been a GM for years hasn't dealt with computers."

"The disadvantage you have as general manager is simple," Wren says. "The decisions you make stop with you. When you're the assistant, they don't."

Frank Wren file

Age: 40.

Home: Parkland, Fla.

Wife: Terri. Children: 3 sons; Jordan, 4, and twins Kyle and Colby, 7.

Career

Marlins: Joined Florida on Sept. 30, 1991, as assistant general manager after spending the previous 15 years with the Montreal Expos' organization. Assisted general manager Dave Dombrowski in all areas, including talent evaluation.

Expos: Began his front-office career in 1985 as general manager of the Jamestown Expos of the New York-Penn League and later became Expos assistant scouting director. In 1989, was appointed director of Latin American scouting and operations. Expos farm system was twice cited as the Organization of the Year by Baseball America during his tenure.

Player, coach: After being recruited out of St. Petersburg Junior College, played center field in the Expos' organization in 1977 and reached Double-A before retiring in 1981. Coached in the Expos' system from 1981 to '84.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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