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New development: Sense of purpose ruling the roost

Doc Rodgers, Tired of last-place finishes and low-grade talent, the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings ditched the Orioles after 42 seasons. Their replacement, the Ottawa Lynx, made the International League playoffs as a wild card.

Improvement was widespread in the Orioles' minor league system, which produced a 368-389 record among seven affiliates, compared with 332-434 last year.

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But success carried a much broader definition than victories for an organization still trying to mend its reputation.

The environment changed.

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Players were more disciplined and finally held accountable for their actions. Instruction became more consistent at every level, tying in with the desires of the major league team. Pitchers had their innings more closely monitored, reducing the injury risk to such top prospects as John Maine and Adam Loewen.

It all started with Doc Rodgers, director of minor league operations and resident enforcer.

"Part of it is my personality," said Rodgers, hired in January to replace Don Buford. "Work ethic, discipline, those are the main ingredients of success. I've played myself, I have two college degrees, and the successes I've had, and I've seen other people have, started with discipline and work ethic. I personally don't know any other way."

Rodgers' message could be as simple as a uniform code - socks exposed 6 inches - or as silly as a catch phrase. The goal was clear and consistent: Get on the same page or get out.

"Let's be one organization," Rodgers said.

Anyone in player development leaving a voicemail report signed off with, "The Oriole Way." Every day, every night, the messages ended the same way.

"It's part of what we do," Rodgers said, "so that for six months or however long the season is, we're committed to do things together and everything's consistent throughout the minor leagues, including the summer league program in Venezuela and the Dominican."

Rodgers and his assistant, Tripp Norton, stayed in close contact with their staff, a drastic change from the years when vice president Syd Thrift called the shots and Buford - stripped of any authority - took the heat.

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"I'm the farm director, but rarely do I make a decision just off my opinion," Rodgers said. "I speak with Dave Schmidt, the pitching coordinator, every single day of the season. It's the same thing with Dave Stockstill, the field coordinator. I also do that with Dave Walker, the medical coordinator. We have a continual dialogue about players, pitching, everything, so fewer things get missed."

'You have to perform'

A merit system was implemented that allowed unheralded players such as B.J. Littleton and Joey Hammond to advance, recognizing their work ethic. Prospects weren't rushed, and former ones like outfielder Tim Raines Jr. resurrected their careers while guided with a firmer hand.

"Now it no longer matters when you were drafted, who signed you and what you got paid. You have to perform, you have to commit yourself to our expectations, or you go unrewarded," Rodgers said.

Technological improvements also were made.

"For the first time, we were able to [e-mail] our game reports, which meant instant information to the front office instead of faxing it in and worrying about the phone lines," Rodgers said.

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An opposing scout who's familiar with the Orioles' minor league system said he believes the franchise has "turned the corner."

"They're running it like other people run it - professionally," he said. "They've gone from a mess to a solid player development situation."

Paying the consequences

It couldn't have happened without better discipline and structure. People outside the organization last year noted the poor instruction and attitudes, the lack of respect for authority and how it translated on the field.

One new manager viewed tapes of batting practice sessions from 2002 and was appalled by the players' conduct. Caps were turned backward and earrings dangled from both lobes. Outfielders worked on their curveballs, and batting helmets were slammed on dugout steps.

"Some organizations are better than others, but you would be hard-pressed to think that anyone was worse than Baltimore last year. And you could ask anyone in baseball," the scout said. "Fundamentally, they weren't good. They didn't hustle. Even things like not wearing the uniform properly, just going out there and goofing around."

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And now?

"There were mega-differences, not just subtle or small ones," he said. "Everybody's on the same page, and they're going in the right direction. I saw an organization where the guys were out there on time. It was everything from the stretching to the pre-game workouts to the uniforms to the coaching and the enthusiasm. They went from a moribund mess to a situation where it's a positive environment."

Players who didn't conform were told to leave, even for one violation of team policy. Some punishments, like a reassignment to the minor league camp in Sarasota, Fla., were more subtle.

"Everything's a lot more structured now," said Matt Riley, who pitched at Double-A Bowie and Ottawa before joining the Orioles. "Doc Rodgers really wasn't putting up with anything. He came in and set the law down, and if you didn't like it, you paid the consequences.

"You saw it in spring training when guys messed up. And that's what we needed. We lacked discipline in the past. Guys ran free and did what they wanted. There were no consequences for our actions, and now there are."

"Hopefully," said first-year Baysox manager Dave Trembley, "people could tell there was a difference."

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Developing winners

The scene that unfolded in Ottawa's clubhouse earlier this month didn't resemble anything experienced by the Orioles' top affiliate the previous five years.

After Riley struck out eight batters over 6 1/3 innings, giving the Lynx a 6-3 win that clinched the wild card, Rodgers waded through all the champagne-soaked bodies until he reached the left-hander, whose promising career was disrupted by maturity and health issues.

"I love winning," Riley shouted to him. "It feels so good."

"That," Rodgers said, "was one of the best moments of the year. This is a highly touted prospect who could be selfish, but he's totally excited about pitching in a game at the end of the season that meant something.

"You can never get away from trying to put players in a positive environment. Winning and development aren't separate. It is one thing, because you're trying to develop winning major league players. If you don't care about winning or losing, then you don't care about the team. We want team players, winners, when they arrive in Baltimore."

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Already planning for next season, Rodgers didn't renew four contracts, including those belonging to Bowie pitching coach Dave Schuler and Single-A Delmarva manager Stan Hough. Most of the replacements will come from within the organization.

"There will be very minimal turnover," said Rodgers, part of a massive overhaul last winter that included new managers with the top four affiliates. "It will basically be the same people teaching the same things."

And making sure they're being heard.

"They're all business," Riley said. "You don't want to follow the rules? We'll go find someone else to play for us, because this is the Oriole Way."

Major gains

The Orioles' minor league teams posted a big improvement in win-loss record over 2002:

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Team (Class) 2002 2003 Change

Ottawa* (Triple-A) 55-89 79-65 +24

Bowie (Double-A) 55-85 69-72 +13 1/2

Frederick (Single-A) 47-92 60-75 +15

Delmarva (Single-A) 76-64 67-71 -8

Aberdeen (Single-A) 30-45 38-38 +7 1/2

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Bluefield (Rookie) 45-23 23-40 -19 1/2

Gulf Coast (Rookie) 24-36 32-28 +8

Totals 332-434 368-389 +40 1/2

*-Rochester in 2002


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