Two years after being trumpeted as the man who would re-establish the Orioles as a franchise steeped in quality pitching, Leo Mazzone was fired yesterday with one season remaining on his contract.
His reputation as baseball's most successful pitching coach apparently could not withstand managerial and front office changes and a staff ERA that was the majors' second worst in each of his two seasons rocking in an Orioles uniform.
"I spoke with Leo today and told him I appreciated his efforts here," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "Moving forward, I felt that we would be better served with someone else working with our young staff and that it was in his best interests and our best interests to give him an opportunity to look elsewhere now."
Mazzone did not return phone calls but issued a statement in which he said he had "a strong inclination that 2007 was going to be my last year in Baltimore when Sam Perlozzo was released and Dave Trembley was hired.
"While disappointed at not having the opportunity to play a role in the reconstruction of the Oriole pitcher development program, I understand and wish the team great success," Mazzone said.
Mazzone is the third member of Perlozzo's staff to be let go by Trembley, joining first base coach Sam Mejias and bench coach Tom Trebelhorn. Bullpen coach Alan Dunn, Trembley's only hire, and third base coach Juan Samuel are returning for 2008. No announcement has been made on longtime hitting coach Terry Crowley, though two sources with knowledge of the situation said Crowley would return.
A replacement for Mazzone has not been named, but Trembley will make the call. The leading candidate is expected to be former Florida Marlins pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who spent years in the Chicago Cubs organization working with Trembley and new Orioles president Andy MacPhail.
"I always have veto right," MacPhail said. "But I do believe the manager has to be comfortable with his coaching staff. I think that is essential. I don't want to put spies there. A manager has to have confidence the coaches are implementing the things he thinks are important for the future of the team."
No one, though, will be able to match Mazzone's resume.
From June 1990 until October 2005, Mazzone oversaw an Atlanta Braves staff that helped the team win 14 consecutive division titles and placed first or second in National League ERA 12 times. Only twice in his 15 full seasons with the Braves did his staff finish with an ERA higher than 4.00.
In 2005, he left Atlanta to join his best friend, Perlozzo. The two became friends while living in Cumberland and dreamed of bringing a world championship-caliber team back to Baltimore.
They didn't come close. Perlozzo was fired in June in just his second full season as manager. Mazzone stayed but was saddled with a significantly less talented group than the one he had in Atlanta. The Orioles posted a 5.65 ERA in 2006 - 29th out of 30 major league teams. This year, the club finished 29th again, this time with a 5.17 ERA. That mark was punctuated by a 6.89 ERA in September, the worst big league ERA for that month in the past 51 seasons.
"It's not a surprise. I think it was going to come," Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez said yesterday of Mazzone's firing. "For two years, our pitching didn't change much. We lost 90-some games and had the worst ERA. You have to win games, especially in a division like this."
The primary criticisms of Mazzone are that his rough, direct demeanor did not mesh with young pitchers and that he had trouble communicating with many of his players.
"He's a different guy. He's not a bad person; it is just the way he is," Hernandez said. "He's not one to talk much to you. We talked when he had to talk. We didn't talk about nothing else."
Last season, two of the Orioles' best young pitchers, Erik Bedard and Adam Loewen, clashed with Mazzone's brash style. But both of them, and starter Jeremy Guthrie, eventually lauded Mazzone this season.
The biggest factor in the Orioles' woeful pitching, Hernandez said, is that several key players, including Bedard, Loewen, Kris Benson and Chris Ray, missed significant time with injuries, putting Mazzone in a tough spot.
"You look at all the guys on the staff that got hurt," he said. "He had a lot of young guys come up, almost every week we had a guy called up, and you don't know what you are getting."
Veteran reliever Jamie Walker said the fault lies with the Orioles organization.
"What happened with all the injuries is the minor league system got exposed. It's not deep," Walker said. "If that comment ruffles feathers, I don't care. There is no way you have nine straight losing seasons and you don't have a system built up."
Walker, who had "no problem at all" with Mazzone, said the players and the organization need to shoulder the blame.
"When you don't have the kind of players you need to play the game, there's always a scapegoat," he said. "Again, here's another scapegoat. That's the way I feel about it."
Mazzone, who turns 59 on Tuesday, will begin looking for a new job, said Brad Steele, Mazzone's business manager, who answered Mazzone's cell phone yesterday.
"His mind-set is that he wants another shot, and he wants to be part of an organization that is going to be committed to winning," Steele said. "He still has the fire in his belly."
Unless Mazzone signs with another organization, the Orioles will have to pay his remaining salary - approximately $500,000.
One possibility is for him to stay in the American League East and join the New York Yankees, who would have an opening if Joe Torre's staff is fired. Mazzone rooted for the Yankees as a kid and considered going to New York in 2005 before signing with the Orioles.
"Yes, I think that is a team we are interested in," Steele said. "He grew up being a Yankees fan, and it is the type of organization he would be happy to be a part of."