Orioles' Mazzilli deserves ovation for finally standing up to umpires


NEWS ITEM: Fourteen Formula One drivers pull out of Sunday's race in Indianapolis with a legitimate gripe and spark mass protests from race fans, who demand - and are refused - refunds.

News item: Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli gets himself thrown out of Sunday's game at Camden Yards for arguing an umpiring decision that turned out to be correct and gets a standing ovation from the big Father's Day crowd as well as rave reviews from the clubhouse.

What's wrong with this picture?

I don't know, but I agree with the crowd on both counts.

Formula One racing is only marginally interesting with a full 20-car field, so the idea that the fans got their money's worth watching six cars - none of which contained Danica Patrick - is ridiculous.

Watching the "new" Maz blow his stack is another thing altogether.

Orioles fans, many of whom grew up watching Earl Weaver kick dirt on the shoes of a whole generation of umpires, have been waiting for Mazzilli to become more animated from the moment he first donned an Orioles uniform last year, but it took 230 regular-season games to get his blood boiling to the point where he finally got the hook.

The fact that he was on the wrong side of the argument - the supposed Chris Gomez home run that was called foul by umpire Chris Guccione turned out, upon video review, to be foul - didn't seem to matter to anyone. Even Mazzilli's teenage son, Lee Jr., reportedly burst into the clubhouse expressing his approval.

I wasn't there, but I'm guessing Jim Hunter almost busted out of his Jay Gibbons T-shirt, which is pretty tight already since that was a 14-and-under promotion.

(He'll deny that he wears Orioles stuff under his coat and tie, but I could swear I saw "Tejada" through the back of his white dress shirt one night.)

Mazzilli has never been much for showmanship, though he did spend some time off-Broadway. He barely displayed a pulse the day that umpire "Balkin' Bob" Davidson called that tie-breaking balk on Steve Kline earlier this season.

In a way, he reflects the front office that hired him. Vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan is a low-key guy who seldom wears his heart on his sleeve, and executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie is so expressionless that I once accidentally hung my overcoat on him at a winter sports banquet.

Maz explained after the controversial Kline call that he didn't argue the balk because there was no chance of getting it overturned. There was some off-the-record grumbling in the clubhouse after that one and a Kickoff page column encouraging him to be a little more aggressive in defending his players, but Mazzilli waited a respectable period before flipping his lid at crew chief Charlie Reliford on Sunday.

Did it make any difference in the outcome of the game? Who knows? The Orioles were leading by a run at the time, and they tacked on one more run to win the rubber game of the weekend series against the Colorado Rockies. But I do know that a manager can raise the level of intensity in his dugout - or just change the mood of the team - with a well-timed tantrum. Tom Lasorda got to the Hall of Fame doing that.

It wasn't the first time Maz has argued a call since becoming Orioles manager, but it was the first time he really vented at anyone, at least in public. He even put an exclamation point on his displeasure by hurling a small crate of bubble gum onto the field.

This was all music to the fans who have been clamoring for Maz to really chew on somebody's ear for a change. He got a rousing ovation for coming out of character, which is a little troubling because it seems to indicate that Orioles fans want somebody different - at least in terms of personality - than the guy who has led the team to the top of the American League East standings.

The old Maz is a surprisingly serious guy who speaks softly and doesn't really care if you don't like baseball cliches. He models himself after his managerial mentor, classy New York Yankees skipper Joe Torre, and isn't particularly thrilled that the fans and some of his players would occasionally rather see somebody more like Billy Martin.

Obviously, he's willing to compromise. He even dropped a rare one-liner when someone asked him after the game what he said to Reliford to get ejected.

"It wasn't 'Happy Father's Day,'" Mazzilli replied.

Now we're getting somewhere. I like a manager with a sense of humor ... or at least one who can take a joke.

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