Hargrove shows O's why he's a winner; Manager: Mixing a no-nonsense approach with the ability to correct but not demean, the ousted Indians boss has Orioles veterans circling the wagons in support.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The February moment remains. On a back field with no outsiders visible, Mike Hargrove observed a fundamentals drill among a group of young players become a farce.

No longer willing to watch silently, Hargrove stalked onto the diamond, turned the air blue and ordered the players and those coaches running the drill off the field. The offending parties were later informed they would return and do the drill correctly or else spend the entire day repeating it.

"That," says first baseman Will Clark, "hasn't been done before."

Today officially makes last season a memory for the Orioles and their new manager. Hargrove follows Ray Miller by bringing five consecutive American League Central titles and two World Series appearances out of Cleveland. Today, the Orioles are willing to trust the manager's office.

"You have to have confidence in the manager to put you in the best position to succeed," says today's Orioles starter, Mike Mussina. "With Cleveland, he did that, and for the first six or seven weeks I've been around him I believe he's done it over here. He understands the length of a season, what it's like to play every day or pitch out of a bullpen. You can't live and die for one particular game if it's going to jeopardize the rest of the season or even the next two days to do it."

Starting his 14th pro season, Clark has seen all types, and Hargrove already has sold him.

Clark first played for the fatherly Roger Craig with the San Francisco Giants, followed by the more outgoing Dusty Baker. Before coming to the Orioles last season, he played under the administrative Johnny Oates. In Hargrove, he recognizes a plan and the confidence to install it.

The back-field reprimand was unusual only because Hargrove typically prefers a less open setting. A tunnel leading from the dugout or an unruffled moment in the outfield during batting practice can accomplish much while drawing little attention.

"Unless the guys in here are looking, they can't see it done, either," says Clark, who easily possesses the clubhouse's sharpest antenna. "That's the way it should be. I've told him, 'You've got all the respect in the world, not only from me, but from all the players because of the way you treat everybody.' It's not public. It's the way it should be. It's the way it was done 10 or 15 years ago."

Whatever edge Hargrove can derive from the change he represents, he'll take. Hargrove's Orioles open the season with their most durable starting pitcher, Scott Erickson, on the disabled list, projected No. 3 starter Jason Johnson in the minors, Mussina's contract status uncertain and several position players coming off injury-abbreviated springs. The Orioles are again a veteran team usually described as old.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift has presented Hargrove a renovated bullpen that may be significantly improved over the '99 version, but Thrift also has his skeptics.

"I think, based on the last two seasons, those perceptions are legitimate. But based on the personnel we have on this ballclub, our expectations and perceptions of ourselves are higher -- and not unreasonably so," says Hargrove. "We're going to go as far as our pitching will let us. Scott Erickson is ahead of schedule. I think our bullpen -- as maligned as it is -- has a chance to be a very good bullpen. It never bothers me when people have lower expectations."

Hargrove arrived from a front office environment in which reaching the postseason became a formality and winning a World Series expected. Ultimately, the front office perceived the performance as drab and believed Hargrove its personification; hence the need for a fresh "voice" within the clubhouse, according to team president John Hart, after October's upset loss to the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series.

Hargrove held his tongue after October's firing, but offensive/defensive coordinator Brian Graham, who first coached for Hargrove in 1987 at Single-A Kinston, perceived the dismissal as "weak" and at least partly because of the manager's disdain for clutching for credit.

"He doesn't want to be in front of the parade," says Graham. "He wants to be the driving force behind the parade. That's never changed."

The scheduling coincidence that pits Hargrove's former team against his current one today doesn't escape the Orioles manager. He's not crazy about it but says: "The only way it would be more ironic is if it was in Cleveland. I'm glad we're in Baltimore, not Cleveland."

Still, if Hargrove walks a little slowly to home plate today, it is because some deep bruises have yet to heal. "I don't think anybody ever gets over when they get hurt. You take it and put in a spot and let it heal over for a while," he says.

"Every now and then the scab comes off. But as far as me being an Oriole as opposed to me being an Indian, when I think of Mike Hargrove, I think of Mike Hargrove as an Oriole. I've turned the page. I've got a lot of fond memories, but that's what they are -- memories."

If he was viewed as part of a problem in Cleveland, Hargrove represents a needed link to credibility for the Orioles, who emerge from consecutive fourth-place finishes picked to finish last in their division this season by as many prognosticators as project them third. Without significant renovations to the game's most veteran roster since a 78-84 finish, no one considers them playoff-worthy.

So what can a manager do?

"A manager makes a difference, but we still have to play no matter what he does," says outfielder B. J. Surhoff. "If he took Moose out after five innings with a perfect game, we'd still have to perform. Whether he brings in a lefty to face a lefty, we still have to perform."

Last season's constant speculation regarding Miller's future assumed its own momentum. An infamous April tirade in which Miller questioned players' character while citing the team's overstuffed payroll permanently damaged his standing within the clubhouse. Bolstered by general manager Frank Wren's recommendation to majority owner Peter Angelos, some players thought Miller's ouster inevitable after a 6-16 April. They then became mutinous after Miller instead received Angelos' backing.

Surhoff, last season's team MVP, acknowledges the issue "became a bit of a distraction but then I think most guys figured out he was going to be here. Some guys never figured it out, and it became an issue of him using them wrong. It became an alibi."

Therein lies Hargrove's instant value, according to many players. Excuses have been removed. Accountability is once more in vogue.

"This time around, the questions aren't about the manager," Surhoff says. "A manager in his first year feels pretty secure about himself and his job. Those questions aren't there."

Hargrove's manner is a subtle one sometimes mistakenly confused with passivity, even lethargy. He cements himself to the same spot on the bench so that he may be easily located by fielders or his catcher. Confrontations are reserved for his office, not a dugout camera.

"An excitable manager makes for an inconsistent ballclub. I try to be consistent in what I do," Hargrove says. "People who really know me know that I'm even-tempered but that I've also got a real bad temper."

At one point this spring, Hargrove privately blistered the club for lackadaisical play and later presented pitchers Matt Riley and Johnson with tough love.

Riley's goofball antics, repeated tardiness and altercation with police outside a beachfront nightclub cost him a start and sent him on his way to minor-league camp in Sarasota. Johnson learned the dangers of assuming too much when he entered camp as No. 3 starter then was optioned to Triple-A Rochester.

"What I was able to do with the Indians brought some automatic respect from the players. But I think my major hurdle was to let the players see that respect was deserved," he says.

Without pandering, Hargrove used camp to develop professional relationships. Before implementing a package of relay and bunt plays different from previous regimes, Hargrove sought input from Cal Ripken and Clark, among others. Ripken, who once chafed under a new system imported by the doomed Phil Regan, offered his input, then his acceptance. As a result, the Orioles now employ the same wheel play that foiled a critical rally in their six-game loss to the Indians in the 1997 AL Championship Series.

"I'm not about trying to reinvent the wheel," says Hargrove. "There are too many people in baseball who fall into that trap. I don't know of any geniuses in baseball. Every time they try to reinvent the wheel, it comes out square instead of round."

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