ANAHEIM, Calif. - Unable to halt a recent stretch of losses that lowered his team to fourth place, Lee Mazzilli was fired as Orioles manager yesterday, in the middle of his second season. Bench coach Sam Perlozzo takes over as interim manager.
"You're heartbroken a little bit because you want to see it through. You come in with an objective and you want to achieve that, but this goes with the territory," Mazzilli, 50, said in a phone interview before boarding a flight to Baltimore.
"I told my wife, and she just talked about how great people treated her in Baltimore. The people in Baltimore treated us well. This is just part of the business that stinks. Somebody has got to be held accountable.
"There's a reason they call it the Charm City. People were really outstanding to me. ... They took care of me and my family."
Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos said, "I felt, along with others in the organization, it needed to be done, that a change was necessary in light of the extremely poor performance of the club in the last six weeks," he said. "On the other hand, I appreciate Lee Mazzilli's efforts, and wish him all of the best and success in the future. It just didn't work out this time for him or for the ballclub."
Mazzilli's dismissal continued a tumultuous week for the Orioles. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro was handed a 10-day suspension Monday for violating baseball's steroid policy. The team had lost a season-high eight consecutive games before yesterday's win and 16 of 18.
"It's certainly been interesting," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "It's not a week you want to have very often, for sure."
Executive Vice President Jim Beattie informed Mazzilli of the change early yesterday morning at the team hotel in Anaheim, Calif. He notified Perlozzo late Wednesday night.
"It's not something that's been brewing for a long time, but obviously there's always a process where you're being evaluated when you're in these positions," Beattie said. "The decision was really made in the last day. This is not something where we're assigning blame necessarily. Everybody associated with the big league club, all of us in that room, we're all responsible in some way for where we are right now.
"I'm not placing blame on Maz, saying we are where we are because he failed. That's not what this move is about. It's a move that you do in the game, and it's an unfortunate part of it, to try to get 25 guys out there playing better, trying a different approach."
Mazzilli was the first Orioles manager fired during the season since Frank Robinson in 1991, and the first midseason change since Angelos became majority owner in 1993.
"I really didn't have any indication of this coming," he said. "I always felt we would be able to turn it around. I had a special group of guys on my team, and they are very dear to me. They need to go out there and finish strong."
The Orioles spent 62 consecutive games in first place but were 4-16 in the second half before yesterday. They fell 10 1/2 games behind the Boston Red Sox and were closer to last place than first.
"Maz worked very, very hard at this job," third base coach Tom Trebelhorn said. "Sometimes things don't work out, and this wasn't working out at this time, so they decided to make a change. I don't know that there's any magical, mystical thing to it. It's tough for everybody."
"It's a sad day," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "Maz was a nice guy. He came in with high hopes and big expectations. It's sad that it just went haywire the last couple of weeks."
Players were informed of the change in the clubhouse before batting practice.
"It was very unexpected," center fielder Luis Matos said. "We just came here this morning, and it just happened. I know we're playing bad baseball right now, and nobody can blame nobody. It's a shame, and we just need to move on."
"What it comes down to is we didn't play well," B.J. Surhoff said.
Mazzilli said he holds no animosity toward Angelos.
"Absolutely not. He gave me a chance," Mazzilli said. "That's just the nature of the beast."
Injuries played a key role in the Orioles' struggles after a hot start. All three starting outfielders, two infielders, their catcher, and pitcher Erik Bedard were not available for stretches.
"We tried to make the best of it with what we had," Mazzilli said.
One trade was completed at the nonwaiver deadline, for outfielder Eric Byrnes. The team didn't add a frontline starting pitcher over the winter or at the deadline.
"The effort was there to try to do some things to help the ballclub," Beattie said. "We always worked well with Maz. We tried to do things to get the club in the best position to win more games. Did we give him all of that? I don't necessarily say that we gave him all the tools, but I don't think it was lack of effort on our part, lack of effort on his part, the coaching staff, whatever, that's gotten us in this position."
Mazzilli became the 15th manager in Orioles history after four seasons as first base coach with the New York Yankees, and he inherited the previous coaching staff. Not considered a serious contender for the job after the search began, he made a strong impression on Beattie and Vice President Mike Flanagan during his interview. They liked his aggressive approach, a contrast to predecessor Mike Hargrove's laid-back style, and the championship experience he brought from the Yankees.
The honeymoon was brief. Mazzilli's job status came into question in his first season, with the Orioles in last place at the break, and he never gained Angelos' full support. No discussions were held about a contract extension beyond this season, even with the Orioles 14 games above .500 on three occasions. Team sources said Angelos wanted Perlozzo as manager all along but deferred to his executives.
Players were irritated last season by Mazzilli's constant references to the Yankees, and they often complained privately about his lack of communication skills and poor handling of the pitching staff. But they vowed to play hard for him until the end.
"If people want to place blame [for the hiring], that's certainly their opinion, and they can go ahead and do that," Beattie said. "But that's what we do in this position, we take risks sometimes, and some of those risks pay off and some don't. If you take the safe route all the time, sometimes that's not going to get you anywhere either."
The Orioles went 78-84 last season, their best record since 1999.
"There were a lot of good things that happened the last couple of years that he brought to the club," Beattie said. "I wouldn't stand here and second-guess [his hiring] at all."
Perlozzo, 54, is in his 10th season with the Orioles, the first five as third base coach before moving to the bench in 2001.
"It's a bittersweet thing for me," said Perlozzo, who must find a bench coach in the next few days, perhaps from the minor league system. "I'm very thankful that Maz kept me here. He could have fired me, but he didn't. He's a good friend of mine. And we're all a part of him not being here. It's not all his fault."
Perlozzo managed the Orioles for 12 games in 2003 while Hargrove attended to his ailing mother in Texas.
"This is something I've wanted to do, and I have two months to do it," he said. "I'm not concerned about how good I'm going to do. I'm concerned about how good the team's going to do. I don't feel like I'm overmatched. We just need to get the team back in order."
Mazzilli compiled a 129-140 record, including 51-56 this season. The Orioles hired him Nov. 7, 2003, giving him a two-year contract worth $950,000 with two club option years. He will be paid through the end of this season.
Perlozzo has coached in the majors for 19 seasons, serving under Hargrove, Mazzilli, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and Ray Miller. He managed five years in the New York Mets system, compiling a 364-263 record and winning three league championships. He never had a losing record.
"He's a guy everybody knows. I hope everything works out good for him and for everybody," Matos said.
Perlozzo, a native of Cumberland, managed Mazzilli for a brief time in the Mets system and was runner-up for the Orioles' job. He hasn't been given any assurances beyond the last 54 games, including whether he'll be interviewed for the full-time job after this season.
"I hope it works out for him," Mazzilli said. "I hope they give him a chance next year."
Sun staff writers Peter Schmuck and Dan Connolly contributed to this article.