MacPhail: The Real Deal?
Hired to rebuild Orioles, lineage and history are on his side
By Pete Kerzel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The moving van pulled out Monday from Fort Lauderdale Stadium, packed with the remnants of Baltimore Orioles spring training. Unlike that Mayflower debacle etched in our collective memories (see, Baltimore Colts: March 29, 1984), this one carries shreds of hope, not heartache.
The departure represents rebirth, a process that has taken 10 painful years for Orioles ownership to acknowledge. A procession of general managers claimed to have started reconstruction. Somehow things got messy, somewhere between “Pardon Our Dust” and the grand reopening.
Andy MacPhail (right) and Dave Trembley (left) must work together to bring the Orioles out of their 10-year slump. (Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
But the most important component of the Orioles’ reconstruction won’t be leaving Fort Lauderdale until the bitter end: Friday afternoon, following a final Grapefruit League game against the New York Mets, the Birds will board a plane to Baltimore to prepare for their March 31 opener against the Tampa Bay Rays.
And right to the final boarding call on the charter, right through that last exhibition against the Nationals in Washington, D.C., right up until the deadline for finalizing the 25-man roster, Andy MacPhail will be working diligently, trying to improve his ballclub. Blockbuster deal or small-time tweaking, it matters not. Change is change, and positive change, even in small increments, is a step in the right direction.
How does MacPhail spend his days during spring training? Well, he’s kind of like Sidd Finch, the George Plimpton April Fools' Day creation that tantalized Sports Illustrated readers with a 168-mph fastball back in 1985. You hear a lot more about MacPhail than you see him. Unlike the faux phenom, he is the real deal, the perfect personality to preside over this tumultuous era in black and orange.
Oh, MacPhail is around, usually conservatively attired, dipping in and out of the cinderblock building that houses the Orioles’ spring offices. He might drop by for a quick clubhouse chat with manager Dave Trembley, but he doesn’t linger. He’s on the field, filming a commercial for MASN -- one take, and he vanishes. There he is, watching a spring training game with his father, Lee, the Orioles’ general manager from 1958-65. They share a family baseball bond that extends to Hall of Fame executive Larry MacPhail, Andy’s grandfather and Lee’s father. How’s that for impressive lineage?
Andy MacPhail is polite, accommodating to the media and says all the right things in all the right ways. Of course that’s the job of a successful baseball executive: Give them what they need, but not too much. Don’t overplay your hand, because it’s the most valuable chit you possess.
He’s pragmatic, realistic and plain-spoken. When MacPhail explains why it makes sense to entertain the prospect of trading second baseman Brian Roberts -- surely the face of the current franchise, if it has one -- to the Chicago Cubs, fans understand in a way that doesn’t involve swilling the orange Kool-Aid.
Improvement toward returning a once-proud franchise to its seemingly forgotten glory -- that’s his only focus. No balancing baseball against a burgeoning career as a French horn player, extolling the virtues of Tibetan yoga or the mind-body meld as it relates to pitching prowess. Remember, Finch was a creation.
Which is why this week, as the moving van chugs slowly up Interstate 95 toward Camden Yards, it will only contain a portion of the Orioles’ offseason work. MacPhail’s season never ends. Its genesis during last midseason’s period of turmoil merely represents a starting point for further achievement.
What’s left to do? Everything and nothing, which is the credo of baseball executives across the majors.
Roberts remains an Oriole, but for how long? If MacPhail can extract the correct recipe of prospects and talent from the Cubs -- as he did in the lopsided deals sending disgruntled shortstop Miguel Tejada to Houston and malcontent left-hander Erik Bedard to Seattle -- maybe Cubs skipper Lou Piniella will have a new leadoff hitter by Opening Day.
Who would replace Roberts? Depends on how a trade is structured; maybe the successor comes in the deal, maybe he doesn’t. The Orioles aren’t thrilled with the prospect of opening the season with either Luis Hernandez or Brandon Fahey at shortstop. The former doesn’t look like the same guy who impressed the club in his September trial last season and the latter might be better suited in a utility role. There could be a whole new middle infield when Jeremy Guthrie delivers the first pitch of the 2008 season.
The fifth starter remains a sore spot, since none of the candidates have jumped to the front of the fray. Trembley prefers an aggressive approach, people making the club rather than backing into roles. So MacPhail will work the phones, scrutinize the waiver wire and look at other teams’ castoffs, hoping to find a serviceable part.
More times than not, MacPhail has succeeded in this endeavor. He built winners in Minnesota and had the woeful Cubbies a fan-caught foul pop away from the World Series. Whether he will work the same magic here remains an intriguing unknown heading into 2008.
Ever hear of Joe Berton? Probably not. He’s the guy who posed for photos as Finch, his face conveniently obscured like the neighbor Wilson in “Home Improvement,” to lend credence to the hoax.
MacPhail is no Berton, no Finch. Everything about him carries an air of legitimacy, respectability and hard work. It’s not about smoke and mirrors, but results and accountability.
More importantly, MacPhail possesses a vision for the future, which makes the spinning of wheels to which Orioles fans have become accustomed seem far away. Like Fort Lauderdale disappearing in the rearview mirror of that Baltimore-bound moving van.
Issue 3.13: March 27, 2008