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Three years ago, the Orioles, Florida Marlins, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves were the last four teams standing in the postseason.

The Marlins became the first wild-card world champion in only their sixth season before abruptly shedding payroll, changing ownership and gradually recovering to hover around .500 for most of this season.

The Indians became frustrated with five consecutive division championships and two World Series appearances and fired manager Mike Hargrove, who migrated to Baltimore. Cleveland now challenges for a sixth consecutive postseason berth.

The Braves, pressing for their ninth division championship in a row, remain a beacon of stability as manager Bobby Cox has his league's longest-running job and general manager John Schuerholz enjoys unchallenged stability within the industry.

The Orioles, meanwhile, have embarked on a renovation hoping to incorporate the tenets of their rivals' success - the Marlins' skill in international scouting, the Indians' ability to develop drafted players and the Braves' seamless communication between scouting and player development.

"You need all three elements to have a successful organization," says the Braves' Schuerholz, a Baltimore native. "Over time, the absence of one will overtake the presence of two."

The Orioles began to intensify their international scouting efforts shortly after Syd Thrift's arrival as director of player development five years ago.

Thrift, now vice president for baseball operations, clearly remembers his motivation for change. On a tour of the Orioles' playing facility about 20 miles outside San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Thrift discovered 10 teen-age boys crammed into a cinder-block house with flickering electricity, broken plumbing and swine roaming the yard.

"It was awful," recalls Thrift, who took pictures as evidence for new owner Peter Angelos. "It wasn't what I was expecting."

The Orioles have twice upgraded their Dominican housing since and are planning construction of an elaborate academy consisting of five fields, a dormitory and classrooms near San Pedro de Macoris. Rather than players having to bus to a single field, they'll live on site, practicing daily while also studying Spanish and English.

The ongoing commitment shows how far the Orioles have come in matching teams like the Marlins in international outreach. Yet much remains to be done. The club has plenty of foreign-born prospects, but none has yet made an impact in the majors.

In 1994, the Orioles' first full season under Angelos' stewardship, just under a quarter of the organization's 186 players were foreign-born. The 40-man major-league roster included only three - Armando Benitez, Manny Alexander and Sherman Obando. Today, nearly half of the Orioles' 252 players were born outside the United States, including 65 from the Dominican Republic, 24 from Venezuela, six from Canada and five from Curacao, according to Major League Baseball. The team's percentage of foreign-born players (44.8) well exceeds the industry average of 39.4 percent.

The Orioles have more international players than the Braves, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, franchises known for their extensive reach.

Dominican inroads

The Orioles also are making progress in securing Dominican players. Only the Boston Red Sox (86), Oakland Athletics (85), New York Mets (82) and Marlins (67) have more than the Orioles' 65.

Every major-league team is represented in the Dominican Republic. Some, such as the Blue Jays and Dodgers, own their own academies. Other organizations rent facilities. The Marlins began construction of their facility soon after the 1990 expansion draft.

The Orioles, meanwhile, continue to bus their players to a single field, admittedly at a handicap.

"I think it gives them a big advantage," Thrift says of those organizations able to provide an academy lifestyle. "You don't just teach baseball there. You'll have a better pupil and a better player because there are educational and nutritional aspects to it."

The Marlins were first to separate Latin American scouting from their domestic operation and give each department its own budget and clout. Among Dave Dombrowski's first moves as Marlins general manager was to make the Latin American director a post considered the equal to scouting director. The Braves copied the move last month.

"In today's world, in order to be successful, you have to have a good international program," says Al Avila, the Marlins' director of scouting and Latin American operations. "You have to have good international resources and a productive draft. You throw some free agency in the mix to have a good organization. If you don't do well or ignore one aspect, you're going to suffer. It might not show up for a while, but it will show up."

Aware of the significance of Latin talent to its fan base, the Marlins aggressively pursued Cuban pitchers Livan Hernandez and Rolando Arrojo after their defections, along with free agents in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Hernandez signed a $6 million contract with the Marlins and emerged as Most Valuable Player of the 1997 World Series.

Though the Marlins' major-league payroll was decimated after their world championship, an international commitment remains. They recently signed 17-year-old pitcher Denny Bautista for a $360,000 bonus and obtained Venezuelan shortstop Miguel Cabrera for $1.8 million before he turned 17 in April.

"International scouting is where an organization can really separate itself," says former Orioles general manager Frank Wren, an assistant general manager with the Marlins before coming to Baltimore in October 1998. Now a Braves vice president and assistant general manager, Wren adds, "You've got limits on the draft. There are no limits internationally. We felt we had to make a mark there."

When Thrift traveled to the Dominican Republic in 1995, the Orioles only shared a team and had no presence in Venezuela, the second-most productive incubator for foreign-born talent. Today, the Orioles have 32 players on their own team in the Dominican Republic and share a roster in Venezuela.

The Orioles broke new ground last year when they signed outfielder Quincy Ascencion of Curacao for a $500,000 bonus, the richest they have ever given a non-drafted player. The Orioles also crossed a threshold last season when they signed right-handed pitcher Sendy Rleal to a $125,000 bonus, the first time they had obtained a Dominican player for a six-figure bonus.

"If the value is there - if you really believe it's there - you spend the money," says Thrift. "But you're always looking at comparables. The way we've done it is to compare the player with a player in this country who would come through the draft system. You then make a judgment on value."

Outfielder Ntema "Papy" Ndungidi, 21, is among the Orioles' most intriguing finds. A native of Zaire who went to high school in Canada, he was taken with a supplemental pick between the first two rounds of the 1997 draft.

Though not among the industry leaders in the Pacific Rim, the Orioles have recently tried to make connections in South Korea and Taiwan.

Australia is seen as trailing the Far East countries in talent while the cost of scouting is roughly the same. Australian pitching prospect John Stephens, 20, signed with the Orioles as a 16-year-old in 1996 and won the Palmer Prize last season as the farm system's pitcher of the year.

The Indians, who admittedly lag in international scouting, instead have focused resources on the draft, strategic free-agent signings and a developmental plan authored by vice president of baseball operations Mark Shapiro.

Shapiro speaks of a "mission statement" for the player development department in which players are to be enhanced "mentally, physically and fundamentally." Shapiro calls it "holistic development." Implementation began in 1994, roughly coinciding with the Indians' transformation from a perennial afterthought to an American League power.

Shapiro established criteria for advancement to each rung of the system while also ordering a profile for every player detailing strengths, weaknesses and a prescription for improvement. (Graduation from Rookie league necessitates matters as simple as wearing the uniform properly, being prompt and taking infield correctly.)

Accountability for players, managers and coaches is based on a prospect's progress, which is measured monthly.

"Player development is not something done to the players," Shapiro says. "It's a partnership with the player."

Some methods are more traditional. Like numerous other teams, the Indians have codified instruction into a manual where drills and their method of play can be found. The Indians retain separate sports psychologists for their major- and minor-league operations as well as a strength and conditioning intern at every minor-league level.

Shapiro, son of Baltimore-based agent Ron Shapiro, is among a generation willing to challenge what he calls the traditional "rhetoric and haphazard practices of the past."

"For a long time in this industry, the accepted standard was to throw bats and balls on the field and let the cream rise to the top," says Shapiro. "Well, the cream will rise to the top. But our feeling was we were throwing out a lot of good players because one of the three domains [mental, physical, fundamental] wasn't being addressed. ... We're a baseball organization, but there's no reason why we can't hold ourself to the cutting-edge standards of business."

The Indians' approach is no longer novel within the industry. However, their ability to develop drafted players, graduate them to the major leagues or trade them to fill needs is envied.

Able to draft, develop and deploy star players such as Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Bartolo Colon, the Indians have also traded away highly rated talent including Brian Giles, Sean Casey, Danny Graves and Richie Sexson in the past three seasons. A rush of trades this July resuscitated an injury-ravaged team's playoff hopes.

"The goal of player development is asset development, not only for yourself but for other organizations," says Shapiro.

The Braves have woven the elements of scouting, drafting and player development as neatly as any organization. Blessed with the resources and visionary management, they also have smartly addressed needs via free agency. Their reward is an unprecedented run of dominance within the modern game that includes five World Series appearances and eight consecutive division titles since 1990.

Assured of their ninth straight postseason appearance, the Braves have meshed the Indians' corporate approach to player development and the Marlins' aggressive philosophy regarding international signings. An Orioles official recently acknowledged the Braves as the "model" to which every club should aspire.

Working together

Such status doesn't result solely from money but also coordination and cohesiveness, Schuerholz says. The Braves executive vice president and general manager began his career with the Orioles, then rose in Kansas City to director of scouting and player development of the Royals before becoming general manager there. Since his arrival in Atlanta in October 1990, the Braves have been recognized for a steady flow of domestic and international talent.

Schuerholz created a close alliance between scouting and player development by installing current Tampa Bay Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar as director of both. The two departments now are under separate directors, but the message remains.

"One can't survive without the other," says Schuerholz. "One is more dependent on the other than they are on themselves."

Able to sign Curacao native Andruw Jones and Dominican-born Rafael Furcal, draft Javier Lopez and Kevin Millwood, and even trade away Jermaine Dye with little consequence, the Braves have become the industry's most seamless organization. It also contrasts an often factionalized situation in Baltimore.

The Braves encourage frequent dialogue between departments, and responsibility ultimately is shared. A scout might know something in a player's background that can assist his development.

Schuerholz tolerates no infighting.

"In some cases, you might have one department head silently rooting for the failure of the other so he can look better by comparison. That is deadly in baseball," he says.

"If a scouting director cheers when a farm department has players injured or doesn't have its players at the appropriate level, it's dysfunctional," he says. "If a player development guy cheers a failed draft, that's suicidal. That can't exist. They have to understand they work side-by-side for the organization to prosper."

Schuerholz uses the analogy of a quarry worker and a sculptor: "If scouts can't find the finest marble, they can put clay in front of the finest sculptor and it will crumble. If the most beautiful marble is put in front of someone with no talent, it will ultimately be destroyed, chopped to bits."

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