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Hargrove's skills lost on team of little talent

Inside the Orioles' clubhouse, there's a sad air of inevitability to it all now.

Vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have said nothing to suggest otherwise, so it's almost assumed that the season will end next Sunday in New York, and shortly into the next week, the club will announce that manager Mike Hargrove has been fired.

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Why? The Orioles aren't saying.

Beattie declined to comment again Friday when asked about Hargrove, whose contract officially expires Oct. 31. Flanagan isn't talking either. They don't want what they say to be misconstrued.

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There has been speculation from within the team that Beattie and Flanagan aren't seeing eye-to-eye on this matter - that Flanagan would like to keep Hargrove, while Beattie is prepared to see him go.

But last week, a high-ranking Orioles official refuted that theory, saying the two men are still on the same page, that they simply want to see all 162 games before reaching a final verdict.

If the Orioles wanted to keep Hargrove, logic says they would have told him by now. All six major league coaches have contracts that expire at season's end, and none of those has been addressed, either.

Beattie and Flanagan aren't saying publicly what criteria they are using to evaluate Hargrove and his staff. Hargrove doesn't even know himself. The silence is forcing others to fill in the blanks.

"I told him early on, 'If you don't happen to come back, don't take this personally,' " said Jim Palmer, a Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles television analyst. "Whether it's Mike Flanagan or Jim Beattie, they may think Grover's a terrific manager, but maybe they don't think the fit is right.

"If he doesn't come back next year, it's not because he can't manage; it's because they want somebody else, or they want to go in another direction or whatever."

Palmer pointed to Hargrove's record from Cleveland: five straight division titles, two World Series appearances, a .550 winning percentage.

Then he pointed to the factors that have contributed to Hargrove's .428 winning percentage in Baltimore: Albert Belle's premature retirement, Mike Mussina's departure via free agency, and the team's inability to replace Belle's bat or Mussina with a true No. 1 starter.

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"Does the guy get out-managed?" Palmer said. "Mike Hargrove does not get out-managed. The point is, you're dealing with a $185 million budget for the New York Yankees, and look at all the moves they've made in Boston. So if you're going to judge Mike Hargrove based on who's he's trying to beat, I think it's very hard to get a true assessment of his abilities as a manager.

"When it's all said and done, it's up to Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, and you have to trust their judgment," Palmer said. "I have my opinions, but I respect the fact that Jim and Mike have a very tough choice to make."

If, indeed, that choice is to let Hargrove go, how will the Orioles explain that to their fan base? Here are some possibilities:

Change of direction

The Orioles are suffering through their sixth consecutive losing season, and the past four have come under Hargrove. Beattie and Flanagan didn't hire him, and though everyone seems to get along pretty well, there is industry-wide speculation that they would like to bring in their own guy.

"The reason that perception exists is because there's no more important job for a GM than a major league manager," an American League general manager said last week. "So you have two alternatives. One is to try and build a comfort level with that person and gain an appreciation for his strengths. The other is to go with a guy you're already comfortable with and already have a history with.

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"You're not always looking for the best manager available. You're looking for the best manager for your club at this time."

When Hargrove came to the Orioles, in November 1999, they were an aging, veteran team. They spent his first three years treading water under former vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, and at this time last year, Palmer said, "If you look at this organization, it's in disarray."

In December, Orioles owner Peter Angelos replaced Thrift with Beattie and Flanagan, and the tide has turned. The farm system improved, and several young players - including Jay Gibbons, Brian Roberts, Luis Matos, Larry Bigbie and Jorge Julio - have blossomed this season.

"All I know is the players who are having the best years are all younger," Palmer said. "So somebody has to get credit for that. I think Mike and his staff have done a tremendous job."

Now, Angelos is pledging to spend big bucks on a free agent, with likely targets including such potential franchise cornerstones as Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada.

Is Hargrove the right guy to lead them forward?

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"The Orioles need somebody big in the middle of the lineup and a few other things," a veteran scout said last week. "If they get those things, I think [Hargrove] deserves the chance to manage that team."

Stimulating the fan base

A fan stood up behind home plate at Camden Yards one day this month and held up a sign: "Mike Hargrove for manager!"

He barely received a response, good or bad.

Talk radio and Internet message boards have had some discussions about Hargrove, most of it tepid. He gets second-guessed, as any manager does, for not bunting in certain situations or pulling his starting pitcher too late.

This year, with the bullpen going from a team strength to an Achilles' heel, some of Hargrove's in-game decisions are getting magnified.

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Overall, he seems to be liked in Baltimore, but not loved. This is a provincial town that loves its former Orioles, which is one reason Eddie Murray, Rick Dempsey and Rich Dauer could be candidates to replace Hargrove.

Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo and Triple-A Ottawa manager Gary Allenson are two other possible candidates, and some in the industry think Beattie has his eye on his former Seattle Mariners and Yankees teammate, Jerry Narron.

Narron, who managed the Texas Rangers in 2001 and 2002, is Grady Little's bench coach for the Boston Red Sox this season. Narron went 291-269 as a manager in the Orioles' minor-league system from 1989 to 1992 and was a part of Johnny Oates' coaching staff in 1993 and 1994.

But even those closest to Beattie and Flanagan are having a hard time reading their intentions. Angelos is leaving the decision up to them.

It may be that they want more fire and brimstone in the dugout. Even when he was winning in Cleveland, Hargrove was criticized for not being more animated.

"I think the ballclub takes on the personality of its manager, and I don't see any of our players being laid-back," Hargrove said. "Today's player does not react well to constant screaming and hollering, and what you do when that happens is you portray to them somebody that panics. If they're sitting there looking at me to see how I react, then they're not concentrating on their job. So I try to be consistent in what I do.

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"Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a very intense person. I would like nothing better than to go out and get in some kid's face, or to walk up and down the bench and scream and holler and kick.

"But I've found that this has worked. People can talk about the success rate we've had here. I think our players have played up to their abilities here, I really do. And I don't know what else you want."

Late-season slides

One strike against Hargrove has been his team's failure to finish better than it started each season, and that may explain why Beattie and Flanagan have decided to wait until the end before making their decision.

With injuries piling up, the Orioles went 8-19 after August in 2001. They went through their infamous 4-32 finish last year after sitting at .500 on Aug. 23, and after last night, they are 13-26-1 in their past 40 games.

But anyone who studies those slumps will see the struggles Hargrove had putting a healthy lineup on the field every night.

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"I think under the circumstances he's done a heck of a job, never having a full team that's healthy," said longtime Orioles bench coach Elrod Hendricks.

"It goes back to getting the team to play hard. There were a lot of times this team could have quit, and even last year, when we went through that 4-and-whatever-the-heck-it-was, the team never quit. We ran out of gas, but we didn't quit.

"He's gotten the guys to play hard - no matter how far back we were. I think he's had the respect of 99.9 percent of the players."

Hargrove's teams haven't always struggled down the stretch. In 1992, his first full season managing in the big leagues, Cleveland started the season 40-57 and finished 36-29. His record after Aug. 31 with the Indians was 129-107.

So maybe this, too, is more a reflection of the talent he has had around him.

Despite all the losing in Baltimore, Hargrove has made it clear he would like to stay. He considers this the best coaching staff he has ever had, and he wants to be here when things turn around as they did in Cleveland in 1994.

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If Hargrove winds up on the street next month, most industry insiders say he won't be out of work for long.

"I think Grover represents a rare combination," the AL general manager said.

"He's a manager that has won championships [in Cleveland], and he's also shown an ability to develop players. On the manager market, he would be a strong commodity."

Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.


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