LEE MAZZILLI isn't going to be back to manage the Orioles in 2006.
Maybe you think that's great. Maybe you can't believe that such a notion could be floating around in the middle of the most successful Orioles season since 1997. Maybe you don't give a hoot as long as Miguel Tejada continues to run the team.
But what else are we supposed to conclude from the deafening silence surrounding Mazzilli's status as the now-struggling Orioles approach midseason in better shape - at least in the standings - than anyone could have expected just a few months ago?
The Orioles are under no obligation to pick up the 2006 option on Mazzilli's contract. He gets paid through the end of the season, and the club has every legal and contractual right to wait and see if the uplifting (until now) first half was just some trick of the light. That's just not how it's done.
If you're pleased with the job your manager is doing, you don't leave him hanging out there during a midseason losing streak so that guys like me can speculate about his fate. If you're secretly displeased with the guy or you're not really sure which way your team is going or you're institutionally incapable of making long-range decisions, you leave him to twist, and that pretty much seals the deal.
In short, Mazzilli - who would have been a leading candidate for American League Manager of the Year if the election had been held last week - isn't going to be back. Fill in whatever reason you want.
There are managers on far less successful teams who have gotten their contracts extended already this year, but Mazzilli's situation is more complicated than most. The contracts of vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan also run out at the end of this season, and there isn't any buzz that owner Peter Angelos is ready to do anything about that, either.
It would be unusual for the manager to get an extension beyond the tenure of the front office that hired him, so nothing's likely to happen anytime soon, and here we go on one of those strange, semi-logical, connect-the-dots journeys that lead to the conclusion that somebody else will be taking over this team before the start of the 2006 season.
Mazzilli's stock is never going to be higher than it was 10 days ago, when the Orioles completed a 5-1 homestand against the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies, yet there still were whispers both inside and outside the warehouse that the success of the team had far more to do with the clubhouse chemistry created by Tejada than the strategic or motivational talents of the manager.
Was that fair?
Maybe not, but one of the most popular public activities during the 63 straight days the Orioles spent in first place was nitpicking Mazzilli.
He wasn't animated enough. He wasn't handling the bullpen right. He wasn't Joe Torre, and isn't that what the Orioles expected when they hired him off the Yankees' coaching staff two winters ago?
Some of the gripes were legit. There was grumbling in the clubhouse about his early reluctance to mix it up with the umpires - a situation that came to the forefront the first time that reliever Steve Kline was called for a questionable balk. There have been questions about day-to-day strategy, though Mazzilli clearly had a knack for pushing the right buttons during the first two months of the season, even if they weren't the buttons that Torre or Tony La Russa might have pushed in the same situations.
The Orioles spent more than two months in first place in a division that was considered unwinnable at the outset, and there was not a single positive public proclamation about the manager's performance from the owner. That ought to tell you something.
Clearly, the organization still harbors some doubt that Mazzilli is the right man to provide leadership and stability as a brighter future begins to unfold.
If upper management can't even get caught up in the excitement of the first really positive three-month stretch in eight years, what chance does Mazzilli have of enhancing his job security now that the defending world champion Red Sox are on a roll and all the leading indicators (as the economists like to say) are pointing in the wrong direction?
Perhaps you can make the case that the Orioles are just a different kind of organization, with an owner who has so much on his desk that a contract extension for the manager of his baseball team is way down on the priority list, but it's hard not to conclude that Mazzilli has already watched his window of long-term opportunity slam shut.
If that's the case, he will be able to look back at the loss of catcher Javy Lopez and the mysterious knee injury that sidelined Erik Bedard and wonder how he could be held responsible for a rash of injuries that were clearly out of his control. While he's at it, he might want to ask if anyone has seen the real Sammy Sosa.
He'll also be able to look back at the unusual situation that he found himself in when he arrived in Baltimore and was handed a coaching staff that included two guys - Sam Perlozzo and Rick Dempsey - who were also in line for his job.
Now, he is headed into an uncertain second half and the only vote of confidence he has gotten so far is from pitching coach Ray Miller, who said recently he probably would not choose to come back next year if Mazzilli isn't back as well.
Other than that, the silence speaks volumes.