Orioles need to manage decision on coaching staff

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHANGE IS good, especially if a baseball team has fallen into the abyss and needs a spark. That was the Orioles last season, after they reached .500 then fell apart in a sea of injuries and organizational turmoil.

Was manager Mike Hargrove to blame for a horrendous 4-32 finish?

Any time you supervise a ship sinking that fast, you take responsibility. Hargrove said he did, but there was deeper trouble. If Hargrove was guilty of anything, it was finding the "working" conditions in the last days of Syd Thrift's reign untenable. Those conditions did not work for anyone.

The truth is, the entire organization was grinding to a halt in September, when the signal was clear: Time to start over. Jump-start this ship. Fast.

Hargrove survived - with good reason. The major problem with the Orioles was elsewhere. Hargrove was hardly the main culprit in an organization that needed a new plan and new leaders to carry out the plan.

Change is good when change is needed. The front office got some, and it's like night and day in this baseball-loving city. There is upside again. There is a genuine sense throughout baseball that the Orioles will be players - in free agency this winter, in the American League playoff picture in at least two seasons.

But is more change what the Orioles need? Do they need a spark from their field general? Do they need wild rumors about their new manager being Eddie Murray or Cal Ripken or even Rick Dempsey?

Do the Orioles need speculation that owner Peter Angelos is toying with the notion of installing a former Oriole as manager because the organization is getting back to its roots and besides, wouldn't Eddie or Cal (if they'd come) be a big box-office draw (as if managers sell tickets) in a season of further rebuilding?

The Orioles need stability. The Orioles need momentum. So far this season, that's what they've had.

Examples?

Into the sultry August air, Orioles center fielder Luis Matos hit another homer yesterday, his second in two days, further proving this is his breakout season.

Matos is a good thing and, by extension, good hitting by Matos and Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons (the Orioles are third in batting average after two years at dead last) proves hitting coach Terry Crowley is one of the best in the business.

In Cal Ripken's old locker at the back of the clubhouse, a new kid took his place. Or at least Kurt Ainsworth "borrowed" the cubby from the retired legend.

The newly traded-for pitcher arrived from San Francisco in the eighth inning Saturday night, took a look around Camden Yards and decided it was pretty cool the Orioles have tabbed him to be part of their future.

A No. 1 draft pick who came from the Giants with left-hander Damian Moss and a minor league prospect for pitcher Sidney Ponson, Ainsworth is a good thing, especially considering Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have signed their 2002 No. 1 draft pick, Adam Loewen, re-stocking the farm with front-line prospects.

In the manager's office, Hargrove cracked a smile when asked what would happen when Jerry Hairston comes back from his broken ankle, now that Brian Roberts has given the Orioles two second basemen to consider for the future.

"It's a good problem to have," said Hargrove, whose coaches are clearly helping the young players develop.

A lot of questions have been answered in this year of evaluation. A lot of good things have happened this season. And with those good things comes momentum. That is what the Orioles can't afford to squander.

The longer the fate of Hargrove and the coaching staff hangs in the balance, the longer Orioles Nation wonders if Beattie and Flanagan have autonomy to make the baseball decisions - and make them in a timely fashion.

Last week, Beattie and Flanagan did what had to be done with less than 30 minutes to spare. Just before the trade deadline, the duo GMs dealt 14-game winner Ponson to San Francisco, getting word from Angelos to do what they thought was right.

Quibble or not about the lowball three-year, $21 million offer the Orioles made Ponson in last-ditch contract negotiations, they made the right call. Ponson will test free agency. He isn't worthy of a $10 million salary.

Now there's the new issue on the front burner. That's Hargrove and, by extension, the coaching staff that has helped make the Orioles more compelling and more successful this season than anyone predicted.

If anyone in the front office is waiting for another 4-32 September finish, they might as well go ahead and make the change on Hargrove now. Waiting for failure is in essence a vote of no confidence. That's a bad message - for Hargrove, for the team, for the fans.

If there's still a question about the long-term direction of the club, why not at the very least offer a one-year rollover to Hargrove and Co.?

With Crowley, Sam Perlozzo, Dempsey, Tom Trebelhorn, Mark Wiley and Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles are lucky to employ one of the most respected, experienced, successful staffs in baseball.

Tell them the club is moving in the right direction and there's so much work to do, let's keep it rolling until more pieces are in place. We'll address the situation in 2004, when the roster is better, when the goals are more clear.

This is a good time to settle this, even in the short term. The Orioles figure to be players in the free-agent market. They've got money to spend and work to do. November and December should be months Beattie and Flanagan are dedicated to deal-making with free agents, not firing and hiring a manager.

Besides, the right manager and coaches for this ball club are already doing the job.

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