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Redemption: Dan Duquette Is Rebuilding Reputation, Orioles

March 13, 2013

Entering his second season as Orioles general manager, Dan Duquette is rebuilding his reputation, and his new team, with a vengeance

By Michael Anft

In October, the Orioles flew into Arlington, Texas; beat the Rangers, 5-1, during a one-game wildcard playoff; and launched into the requisite suds-soaked locker room celebration. It was the team's first playoff appearance in 15 years and media members were there to make sure the moment -- novel to a generation of Orioles fans -- was duly recorded.

Someone with a microphone in hand and a TV cameraman in tow cornered Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations. After spouting a few words about how proud he was of the players, Duquette was asked what it meant to him to help deliver a winning team -- a playoff team -- back to Baltimore.

The co-architect of the team's success, beaming before the question was asked, choked up a bit -- and said nothing. It might have been the most open and emotionally honest public moment of his long professional career, and, tellingly, Duquette didn't utter a word.

There were a lot of blanks to fill in there, even though he didn't bother to do it himself. During Duquette's successful life as a baseball operations man, he engineered one of the best National League teams of the 1990s -- the 1994 Montreal Expos -- during a season when a players' strike scotched the playoffs and foiled the club's hopes for a championship.

He was drummed out of Boston, where he had laid the groundwork during the late '90s and early 2000s for a team that later dashed the Curse of the Bambino, and earned little credit for rebuilding the franchise he had grown up rooting for as a young catcher in Dalton, Mass., and later at Amherst College.

Instead, sportswriters and many fans met his firing, which the new Red Sox ownership undertook in 2002, with a collective "Good riddance." They described him with terms such as churlish, arrogant, aloof and paranoid. Sports media guy Dan Patrick compared him to Captain Queeg.

"His personality turned a lot of people off," said Mike Shalin, a reporter for the wire service Sports Exchange and the official scorer at Fenway Park. "He had the misfortune of following Lou Gorman as GM. Lou would talk to anybody, anytime. Dan was a little more on the CIA side."

Despite years of running winning ballclubs, for nine years Duquette earned exactly zero GM offers. Only when the Orioles' search for a top baseball-operations guy in late 2011 had failed to the point that it needed re-booting was his name -- and, eventually, his career -- resurrected.

So, when that locker room question was asked, Duquette would have been within his rights to shoot back, "Well, how much time do you have?" He could have gone on to use words of his own, including redemption, vindication, relief, catharsis or joy.

But that wouldn't be his style. Although Duquette has become available to the media and fans almost to a fault since reviving his fortunes at the Warehouse, he's still the quiet guy who works hard to make sure the team's once-flailing scouting and development operations are making strides, and the major league team has competent or promising players available at any given moment. (O's management made an amazing 158 roster moves during the first 134 games last year, before the typical revolving door of September kicked in.)

Duquette is the wizard of the O's, the man pulling levers behind an orange curtain. Coming out front to take a bow isn't something that comes naturally to him, he admits, though he's working at it.

"I learned a lot from the experience in Boston," he said, after wincing a bit at the question. "I've been more accessible to people around the club, just trying to have more fun with it. My time away from the game made me really glad for the opportunity. Everybody wants to be part of the team, and I've learned to appreciate that."

As he geared up the O's for 2013, Duquette, 54, said he had learned to tune in to the fans' desires. He seemed to realize that last year was sweeter for baseball lovers in Baltimore because, like him, they had spent many years wandering in the desert.

"Running a baseball team is really a public trust," Duquette said. "I've tried to align the goals of the team with those of the fans."

Last year, he moved quickly to wrap up center fielder Adam Jones, one of the team's most popular players, with a long-term contract. He's made himself available as a speaker at roasts, galas and at Baltimore's annual FanFest. He even got champagne-soaked during that celebration in Texas, going beyond merely loosening his tie.

His friends don't exactly marvel at the change, but they say it can't be easy for someone so infused with New England reserve to open up. They tout his dry wit, generosity and steel trap of a mind. But they know that, in front of the public at large, Duquette has the stage presence of a man who goes through the slog of cross-country skiing for fun, which he does.

"He is an awkward personality, though much less so now," said Mike Barnicle, a longtime newspaper columnist in Boston and currently a contributor on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." He has been friends with Duquette since his days with the Red Sox, and has learned that Duquette's primary topics of conversation are baseball and his children.

"With him, it's not so much arrogance as it is shyness," Barnicle said. "He's hard to access emotionally. He wants to stay out of the spotlight. He's not a complainer, though he had a lot to complain about in Boston."

Duquette devised the schematic for what became the first Red Sox team to win a World Series since the dead-ball era; rescued the franchise from the racially backward legacy of its longtime owner, Tom Yawkey; and resuscitated a largely moribund player development system -- but was tossed out of his job within eight hours of the club's sale in early 2002.

His backers say the media pilloried him -- Duquette mentioned they do the same now to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and even to former heroes such as Ted Williams -- and that he often ran into trouble for following the wishes of the team's owner, John Harrington.

"Ownership had asked him to look into selling the team and to explore the idea of building a new ballpark," said Jim Duquette, Dan's cousin, who was the vice president of baseball operations for the Orioles from 2005-07. "He got unfairly labeled as a guy who didn't call people back. But he was really busy."

Time seems to have tempered any lingering resentment from either side. Duquette, true to form, doesn't like to talk about how things ended at Fenway. And one of the men who fired him, Red Sox president (and former Orioles president) Larry Lucchino, is actually a huge fan.
"At the time, we wanted to make a clear statement that we were going to do things in a new way," Lucchino said. "But I have enormous respect and appreciation for what Dan did to lay the foundation for our championship team."

Lucchino lauded Duquette as a baseball guy who had the central element for success: the ability to evaluate players.

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Issue 183: March 2013