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Orioles fire Wren, Miller after '99 flop; GM's surprise ouster blamed on refusal to hold plane for Ripken

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos fired first-year general manager Frank Wren yesterday along with announcing the expected dismissal of manager Ray Miller.

By doing so, he extended his postseason shake-up beyond his handpicked manager's door and into the organization's front office. Among the reasons given in an official announcement of Wren's firing was his declining to hold a plane several minutes for Cal Ripken as the team set out on a road trip to the West Coast in September.

Club sources disclosed that Wren was notified Wednesday night of the owner's decision, with the formal news release coming last night. Wren arrived at Camden Yards yesterday with legal counsel to discuss a settlement with team attorneys and chief operating officer Joe Foss.

The parties met for about four hours before Wren returned home to await a fax with the club's modified offer.

Reached at his Severna Park residence last night, Wren confirmed his ouster but would not elaborate because of ongoing negotiations.

"I had a feeling something was going on [Wednesday]," said Wren, the third general manager dismissed during Angelos' six-year stewardship of the club. "I had a feeling what was being contemplated. It wasn't really a surprise."

Angelos offered no comment concerning Wren to a WMAR-TV reporter yesterday afternoon. The same applied to other club executives, apparently because of ongoing negotiations.

"I'm shocked. I don't know what to say. This is so unbelievable," said one out-of-town Orioles employee.

Every team employee contacted expressed surprise, even embarrassment, at yesterday's events, though Wren said he had sensed the end last week after discussing Miller's status with Angelos. The situation came to a head during a meeting Tuesday with Foss and general counsel Russell Smouse "to come to an agreement on how everyone involved could work together for the upcoming season."

The Orioles acknowledged Miller's firing in a seven-paragraph statement. Angelos credited Miller with much of the team's success in 1997 when Miller served as pitching coach.

"Ray Miller is a gentleman and a fine baseball man, and I appreciate his efforts and the contributions he has made over the years to the Orioles organization," Angelos' statement read. "My best wishes go out to him in his future endeavors."

The 13th manager in team history, Miller compiled a 157-167 record and two fourth-place seasons as Orioles manager. This season, the $84 million Orioles finished 78-84 and 20 games out of first place. Under terms of Miller's contract, the club would have been required to exercise the option in his contract for next season before yesterday; however, Miller said Tuesday night that he had waived the provision.

Miller received $100,000 termination pay. Details of Wren's settlement remain unclear. Only one year into a three-year, $1.65 million contract, Wren will likely receive a fraction of the remaining $1.1 million.

Angelos, reached yesterday evening, was asked if he interpreted the personnel moves as some kind of a fresh start.

"No, it's one more little bump in the road on the way to establishing a successful operation that will produce what we all desire -- a winner," he said.

In describing the departure of Miller, he said: "We had no obligation to do anything in the way of a termination. In the contract, there was a 72-hour option, and we let the contract expire and thereby it was dissolved automatically. I gave Ray a letter of thanks and explained to him that we were not going to renew the agreement, and he put the letter in his pocket before he left the office."

Several times Angelos had stiff-armed Wren's suggestions to fire Miller -- Wren first urged that it be done only 15 games into the season. By August, however, Angelos was telling associates that Miller would be fired after the season.

Assured when hired that he would control Miller's fate, Wren demanded control of the hiring of the new manager, according to sources familiar with the situation. The issue apparently widened old fissures between the two. Their final conversation on Sunday was curt.

"This [manager] is going to be the owner's hire," said a team source. "Frank couldn't accept that. I think it represented the final blow to his pride as general manager."

Wren, 41, was hired Oct. 23 from a well-regarded pool of four candidates to replace Pat Gillick. Wren had served as the Florida Marlins' assistant general manager during the franchise's rapid rise from expansion team to World Series champions. He immediately set about conducting an organizational "transition," given 11 free agents, a 79-83 fourth-place finish in 1998 and aging players.

Almost immediately, Wren and Angelos came into conflict. Wren was blamed for what Angelos considered the imprudent signings of closer Mike Timlin and second baseman Delino DeShields to long-term contracts. Timlin struggled badly during the season's first half.

After suffering a freak injury during a March 4 intrasquad game, DeShields suffered through two tours on the disabled list and was eventually overshadowed by rookie Jerry Hairston, whom ownership favors as next year's starter.

Wren also was responsible for several positive acquisitions. He dealt minor-league outfielder Danny Clyburn to Tampa Bay for pitcher Jason Johnson, who won a place in the rotation and finished 8-7. He acquired first baseman Jeff Conine from Kansas City for journeyman pitcher Chris Fussell. And Wren worked a three-team deal that, in effect, acquired Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson for erratic reliever Armando Benitez.

Angelos became enraged by the abortive signing of free-agent reliever Xavier Hernandez after the right-hander was diagnosed with a slight tear of his right rotator cuff.

The Orioles released Hernandez before he had thrown a pitch. Hernandez's agent filed a grievance that resulted in the club paying his client $1.75 million over three years. Angelos cited the incident as further proof of Wren's incompetence.

But according to the Orioles, the breaking point came Sept. 17, when the Orioles were scheduled to fly to California for a three-game series against the Angels.

The team press release quoted Foss as saying:

"Cal Ripken, traveling from his home to meet the team's privately chartered jet for an 8 a.m. flight to a game later that night in Anaheim, found himself delayed in congested traffic. He called the team's traveling secretary, Phil Itzoe, by car phone to assure him that he would be arriving at the airport within the next five to 10 minutes. Itzoe relayed this information to Wren, who declared he would not wait beyond the scheduled departure time.

"At Wren's order, the plane took off without Cal, who arrived at the gate a few minutes later. Cal was then forced to make his own cross-country travel arrangements. He had to hurry to the Washington, D.C., airport, where he found a flight to Vegas and then had to take another flight to California, arriving hours after the team.

"In the opinion of management, there was no need for such an arbitrary and inflexible decision. In the meeting, Wren defiantly dismissed our concerns, characterized them as 'silly' and insisted he would invoke the same takeoff order no matter what the extenuating circumstances. The Orioles management cannot and will not abide having a general manager operate in such an unreasonable, authoritarian manner and treat anyone this way, especially someone such as Cal who has done so much for the Orioles and for baseball."

At various times last season backup catcher Lenny Webster, rookie pitcher Matt Riley and coaches Sam Perlozzo and Bruce Kison were left behind. Those incidents were not mentioned in Foss' statement.

Foss also cited instances in which Wren had made "extremely negative comments about various personnel" and initially rejected a need to apologize to four employees.

Wren eventually apologized to three of the employees but refused to do so to the fourth, Foss said.

Rather than occupy the same fourth-floor luxury suite as Angelos -- a tradition during Gillick's regime -- Wren and front office members crammed themselves into a spare broadcast booth on the third floor.

However, tension between Wren and Angelos appeared to ease last summer. They spoke more often and with greater ease. Wren often lauded the chairman for his commitment to player development and the draft as evidenced by the Orioles' ability to sign their first 13 draft picks, including a major-league record four first-rounders.

Tension between Miller and Wren surfaced publicly in Detroit on Aug. 27, when the manager described the clubhouse as "dysfunctional." Wren responded the next day by questioning how a team ranked in the league's top five in pitching, defense and hitting could languish with one of its worst records.

The situation was seen as predictable by industry executives familiar with the perils of a general manager inheriting a manager.

"I'm happy our ownership has allowed us to have stability here," said Texas Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, Orioles assistant GM from 1986 to 1994. "We've gone through two ownerships, and they've allowed me as GM to do the job and put the team on the field.

"If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but they've allowed me to have the stability I needed with Johnny [Oates] and his staff."

Sun staff writer John Steadman contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/08/99

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