Returning with mixed emotions

The Baltimore Sun

SEATTLE -- When the Seattle Mariners' charter plane touches down at BWI Marshall Airport this evening, there will be a homecoming of sorts.

Sam Perlozzo, the Mariners third base coach and Cumberland's favorite son, will step back onto Maryland soil for the first time in months.

As for the dueling heartbreaking and heartwarming memories, the swirling emotions he is anticipating, Perlozzo doesn't expect to deal with them until he walks into Camden Yards, or perhaps not until pre-game introductions tomorrow night.

He doesn't know what the reaction will be because, frankly, he's not sure which Sam Perlozzo will be remembered.

Will it be the dues-paying, fun-loving coach who toiled for a decade in orange-and-black for one shot at his dream job? Or will it be the embattled manager who posted a dismal .427 winning percentage and was unceremoniously canned last June halfway through a three-year contract? Perlozzo acknowledged he's curious about how his former city, players and fans will treat him during the Mariners' four-game series starting tomorrow at Camden Yards.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I haven't thought about it; I have," Perlozzo said from the Safeco Field clubhouse this week. "There are a lot of great people around that city. I made a tremendous amount of friends. The fans have been great, and I would hope the fans would appreciate the things that I did over 12 years in Baltimore."

When Perlozzo took over for Lee Mazzilli on Aug. 4, 2005, he never envisioned being with another team so soon. When the interim tag was removed that October and he signed a three-year deal -- the Orioles are still paying him approximately $500,000 this season -- he believed he would turn this once-proud franchise around. He still feels that way.

"The only thing I wish I did different? I wish I would have had some more time," Perlozzo said. "I still think I could have made a difference."

There's no question in his mind when it all began to unravel: Sunday, May 13 in Boston -- forever to be known as the Mother's Day Meltdown. The Orioles were winning 5-0 with one out in the ninth and rookie Jeremy Guthrie pitching a three-hit shutout when a runner reached first on an error.

Attempting to protect his inexperienced right-hander who had thrown 91 pitches, Perlozzo pulled Guthrie for setup man Danys Baez and then closer Chris Ray.

"I was totally taking care of [Guthrie]. I wanted him to be a good pitcher. I didn't want to blow him out," Perlozzo said. "I had the back end of my bullpen with a five-run lead and one out. How could you make a mistake there?"

The two relievers imploded, Boston scored six runs in the ninth for the comeback victory, and from that point, Perlozzo's every move was scrutinized until he was fired five weeks later. It was the toughest, loneliest period of his life.

"I felt like there was no out, and I felt like I was all by myself," he said.

During that time, the same players who celebrated his hiring groused privately about his decisions and declined to support him publicly. That stung, Perlozzo said, but he no longer dwells on it.

"I think you can only get yourself in trouble by thinking about those kind of things," said Perlozzo, who says he would like to manage again. "I'm not going to point to somebody else. I'll point to myself. Maybe there are things I could have done better."

When he was fired, there was no sense of relief that life under a microscope was over. He felt only inconsolable loss.

"There were so many people counting on me from my hometown and home state, I felt like I let them down," Perlozzo said. "If you let yourself down, that's one thing. But I felt like I had the load of the state on me that I was trying to carry, and I let them down."

He said he no longer feels that way, not after receiving countless letters and phone calls of support from friends. But one of his oldest buddies, former Orioles bench coach Lee Elia, said he's not sure Perlozzo will ever fully recover from that firing.

"It's a very difficult thing because your thirst for success for that organization is so strong," said Elia, now a Mariners special assistant. "When it doesn't materialize in the short time when you are there, I could feel for him."

Elia, a Philadelphia native, was fired by his hometown Phillies in 1988 after he spent two seasons as their manager.

"I don't think it ever leaves you. I don't think it will ever leave Sammy, either," Elia said. "But he is a professional, and he will move on and he will have success again."

Ten days after his dismissal from the Orioles, Seattle manager John McLaren offered Perlozzo a job on his staff. Perlozzo declined because it was too soon, the wound too fresh.

In the offseason, McLaren called again. Although it meant temporarily leaving his wife behind in Orlando -- the couple has sold its house in Columbia -- to relocate, Perlozzo wanted to get back into baseball.

It was a wise move, said McLaren, who believes the 57-year-old Perlozzo is re-energized as the Mariners' third base coach and infield instructor.

"He is a difference maker," McLaren said. "He is one of the best infield coaches I have been around. He is a great teacher ... and he is a winner. He is a close, personal friend of mine, and that's about as good of a combination as you can get."

So, Perlozzo is a Mariner again, 13 years after he left as third base coach of that organization to come home. Now, he's returning to Baltimore and looking forward to seeing his former players.

"They were my guys. I had a good time with those guys. You can't judge guys always when things are going bad," Perlozzo said. "I expect some hugs from all of them."

As for Orioles fans this weekend? He knows he'll hear some cheers, because he'll have friends and family at every game. "You'll hear a few of them, there will be a little section there. Hopefully, they'll get muffled over by the regular Baltimore fans that are cheering for me," Perlozzo said, breaking into a laugh.

"Hopefully, there won't be one singled-out section [of support]. That wouldn't be a good thing."

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