Clubhouse leader

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Want to make Lee Mazzilli's blood pressure rise? Tell him the word is, the Orioles are going to meet a real players' manager today, when he officially takes over the reins as pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

"What's a players' manager?" Mazzilli said, somewhat defensively, last week.

The questioner hemmed and hawed. By definition, a players' manager is someone who can relate well to the modern player, often a former player himself, who ...

"Yeah," Mazzilli interjected, "but most managers are former players."

OK, the questioner said. A players' manager is usually a good communicator, someone who ...

"Of course," Mazzilli interjected again. Then he took the subject and ran.

"There's a lot of good baseball people out there," Mazzilli said, "but a big thing about managing is you have to have the people skills to go with that."

Mazzilli said a good manager knows his players and knows how to ride their ups and downs.

"It's not screaming and hollering or anything of that nature; that has nothing to do with it," Mazzilli said. "You come in there, you give respect, you get respect. And you can go about it in a very quiet way. It's all in the delivery."

Mazzilli's delivery is soft. His message is not.

After four years of working under Mike Hargrove - a man affectionately known as "Grover" - the Orioles are about to get their first taste of "Maz."

For the next six weeks, they'll get a glimpse at Mazzilli's style of managing. Spring training will be a feeling-out process for the manager and his players.

Mazzilli, 48, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and reared through a 14-year major league playing career spent mostly as a center fielder with the New York Mets. He spent the past four years as New York Yankees first base coach, working under his mentor, Joe Torre.

The Orioles interviewed eight candidates to replace Hargrove last fall, including Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Murray and in-house favorite Sam Perlozzo, but chose Mazzilli in hopes he could bring his swagger to their rebuilding team.

"After getting a chance to sit down and talk with him, you can tell he really values this opportunity to manage, and you know he's going to make the most of it," said Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston. "You can tell the way he talks that he's excited about our team, and that energy that he has is going to rub off on other players.

"He has one thing on his mind, and that's to win. And that will definitely rub off on the guys."

At this point, perhaps nobody in the Orioles organization knows Mazzilli better than vice president Mike Flanagan, and that's because Mazzilli has called Flanagan at least once almost every day since he was hired Nov. 7.

Mazzilli has been like a sponge, soaking up details about the franchise, and he pushed the front office to sign as many top players as possible. The Orioles picked up four top free agents in shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and starting pitcher Sidney Ponson.

"I think he'll bring strong leadership," Flanagan said of Mazzilli. "I think the reason he's torn about not being a players' manager is because that seems to get a negative connotation, where the players do whatever they want.

"He'll take time to talk to guys on why they aren't playing well, as well as why they are [playing well]. I think he's going to be a manager that deals with the whole but does not neglect the parts. I wouldn't call him a players' manager, but I see him being fair and open."

The Orioles have never said publicly what they did and didn't like about Hargrove, and Flanagan has far too much respect for the former manager to begin now.

Hargrove ran a pretty smooth ship, seldom encountering problems with his players. He was fired one day after the Orioles finished 71-91 for their sixth consecutive losing season.

If anything, there was a perception that Hargrove was too laid-back, that he relied too much on his veteran players and didn't push enough of the right buttons with the entire 25-man roster.

Mazzilli blew away the search committee in a four-hour interview, landing a two-year contract with club options for 2006 and 2007. Now, it's his turn to lead and instill a winning attitude.

"It comes from the first day," Mazzilli said, "what you believe, what to expect out of yourself and from the team, going out on the field and expecting to win every game that you play in - not hoping to win a game. And when you lose, you're surprised you lost. 'Why did I lose?' "

After taking physicals tomorrow, the Orioles' pitchers and catchers will have their first workout, and Mazzilli will address them briefly. His big speech will come Feb. 26, the day of the first full-squad workout.

Mazzilli has been thinking all winter about what he's going to say. He said it's too early to say what his goals are for this team. But after seeing a record 15,000 people turn out for FanFest on Feb. 7, he knows the expectation levels have been raised.

"I'm ready as I'm ever going to be, I guess," he said. "I'm prepared; we're all well-prepared. You go down there with butterflies; you always do. They're good butterflies. It's like playing in the World Series: You always have those butterflies to give you that intensity that you need, that intestinal fortitude to go the extra mile."

The Orioles retained their entire coaching staff, including Perlozzo and first base coach Rick Dempsey, who both applied for Mazzilli's job. Mazzilli called the staff together for meetings and bonding sessions last month at Camden Yards.

"It's working out great, because I've got good baseball guys that have been around a long time," Mazzilli said. "They also have helped me and given me some great insight on the players they've had for the past few years. They know how things work."

Mazzilli put third base coach Tom Trebelhorn in charge of organizing spring training, a role Trebelhorn also handled under Hargrove. The first 10 days of camp are already scripted. Mazzilli said the goal is to make the early drills short and to the point.

"Quality and quantity stuff, you know," Mazzilli said. "Guys want to get their work and do it. It's intense and precise. One thing guys do not want to do is stand around and not do anything."

Flanagan said he plans to walk through the clubhouse about 15 minutes before the team's first full-squad workout, just to get a feel for everyone's emotions.

"I think we'll see them being itchy to get on the field, anxious to get out there," Flanagan said. "And I haven't seen that in a while."

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