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In hands of one man, O's can get back on feet

The Baltimore Sun

For once, they didn't have to open the windows on the sixth floor of the B&O; warehouse to get some fresh air.

New Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail took the podium yesterday and took charge of this floundering franchise and, cynics be damned, it sure felt like a new day in Birdland.

It started with the structure of the media conference, for which club counsel (and Peter Angelos surrogate) Russell Smouse made the introduction instead of executive vice president Mike Flanagan. It started with Smouse acknowledging that ownership finally has gotten the message from the club's disgusted and diminished fan base and announcing unequivocally that MacPhail would have "full and ultimate responsibility" for operating the team.

Smouse was speaking for Angelos, who should have been there himself, but let's not quibble at a time like this. The Orioles - for the first time since they hired Pat Gillick - have a baseball operations czar with the kind of juice to effect dynamic change inside the organization and repair the team's broken image in the community and around the major leagues.

Whether he will succeed in doing that depends on a number of factors, from the sincerity of Angelos' desire to upgrade the team to MacPhail's management style. He's known in baseball circles as a fairly conservative guy, which might not be a natural fit for a team that will need to take some pretty big risks if it is ever to approach competitive parity with the economic giants of the American League East.

No one can argue with his credentials. He won two World Series titles with the small-market Minnesota Twins and came as close as a deflected foul ball to getting the Chicago Cubs into the World Series in 2003. He has a track record. He has gravitas. And he has no reason to be here if he doesn't have the authority to rebuild the franchise.

"I'm absolutely responsible for the baseball operation," he said, and it was pretty clear that he believed it.

Clearly, he realizes that he's coming into a situation that requires more than a change in organizational structure and philosophy. The major league roster needs a drastic overhaul, and the head of baseball operations needs enough autonomy to move quickly to exploit every opportunity to improve the team.

MacPhail stopped short of saying he had a guarantee that Angelos would stop meddling in day-to-day operations, but he made it clear that, at least in his mind, it was a condition of employment.

"If I didn't feel that way, I wouldn't be here," he said. "Every owner has the prerogative over his team, and I outlined to Peter where I think those lines are. He's very comfortable with it, and I'm very comfortable with it."

Sure, it's fair to wonder whether Angelos can let go of the reins long enough for anyone to make a meaningful change, but he should have plenty of motivation. The Orioles are headed for their 10th straight losing season, and attendance is in steady decline.

"The fans have been sending a strong message that they want change," Smouse said in his opening remarks. "The Orioles have heard that message and are responding."

That's quite a switch from Angelos' dismissive comments last year when a group of fans protested in the upper deck at Camden Yards.

No doubt, the leadership change will be welcomed by even the most skeptical fans, but MacPhail knows that the only way to change the negative perception of the team is to change the results on the field.

"We're going to have to win games to get them back," he said. "At the end of the day, the fans are the boss. They have the ultimate power. Something we all have to keep in mind, whether we're players or running baseball operations, they're customers and you have to treat them that way."

MacPhail would talk only in general terms about the team and the direction he might take it in, which seems prudent considering that he had accepted the job only three days earlier. He cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that Joe Girardi had been chosen as manager, though nothing said at the media conference did much to contradict the notion that the job is Girardi's to accept or decline.

The managerial search is important, but the change in management structure that has taken place is critical. The Orioles no longer have two general managers. They still have two vice presidents, but they finally have one guy who speaks for everyone.

"I think it's important to have one voice," MacPhail said.

It was only Day One, but that voice sounded pretty good.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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