By Craig Heist
When Sam Perlozzo took over as manager of the Orioles after Lee Mazzilli was fired last August, it wasn't quite the way he had envisioned getting his first big league managerial job.
Prior to getting the job, Perlozzo had been passed by the Seattle Mariners, finishing second to Bob Melvin. Then, after the O’s fired Mike Hargrove at the end of the 2003 season, Perlozzo thought he had a chance, but instead he lost out to Mazzilli, who supposedly "knocked their socks off" during the interview process.
Perlozzo had every reason to feel that way. He had more than paid his dues since joining the Orioles in 1996 as a third base coach under Davey Johnson. He held that position for the next five years before being named bench coach in 2001 under Hargrove.
When he took over for Mazzilli, Perlozzo wasn't dealt the best of hands. The club was in the midst of a second-half collapse after spending 62 days in first place. The downward spiral started with injuries, but nothing affected the club like the disastrous news and aftermath of Rafael Palmeiro’s positive steroid test.
After the dust settled, the Orioles faltered to their eighth consecutive losing season. Despite the struggles, the interim tag was removed with Perlozzo's signing of a three-year contract.
The skipper's first full season has been anything but easy. The Orioles entered this week a season-high 16 games under .500 after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. Barring a miracle, a ninth straight losing season will be a reality.
Perlozzo knows how the fans feel. The losing is unacceptable and has gone on too long, but he said he believes there is a plan in place now to right the sunken ship.
"Somewhere along the line we got out of sync and out of whack," he said. "We haven't been able to sit down and put a plan together and get it back to where it belongs, and I think Mike (Flanagan) and Jim (Duquette) and Peter (Angelos) are committed to that this year.
"I think this is one of the first years we have actually worked towards a goal and a plan, and I think it's moving forward. We have minimized some of our holes, and I think now you can see with a few acquisitions, we can be in this thing."
The bumps in the road have been numerous. Injuries to key players like David Newhan, Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts have played a role. The young starting rotation hasn't performed as expected with guys like Bruce Chen, Daniel Cabrera and Rodrigo Lopez putting up disappointing numbers. The Orioles bullpen has seen 18 different pitchers this season. In fact, in the American League, only the Kansas City Royals have a higher ERA and more runs allowed than the Birds.
"I think he has learned a lot this year," Jeff Conine said. "I think he is doing a good job. We haven't given him all the support in the world from our on-field performance, so he's in a tough spot."
The respect Perlozzo has from his players is, for the most part, the same now as it was when he was a coach.
"I can only speak for myself, but yeah, it is (the same)," Jay Gibbons said. "The guy knows the game. He knows fielding, he knows hitting, he knows everything and he wants to win as much as anyone in here. I have his back as much as I did a year ago. It's going to take time to make it his team, for him to bring in all his personnel that he wants, so it's a building process and I still think we're doing OK."
Perlozzo has always been proud of his relationship with the players and the respect they have for him, but he admits it is different with him at the helm.
"I always felt that was one of my strong suits is being able to communicate with the guys and being able to talk to them," he said. "I am still friendly with them and I can still kid around, but they also know I got the pencil in my hand. It's not something you hold over anyone's head. You just go out and do your job and respect each other and get it done."
Patience is the ultimate key. Perlozzo is the seventh manager since Angelos has owned the club. And for once, it appears the Orioles won't go for the quick fix but rather start to assemble some stability with less turnover when it comes to leadership.
“That's what we are trying to build," general manager Flanagan said. "Continuity with the staff and with the front office. It's an undertaking when you are trying to get the club up on top and keep it up on top, so I think we are headed in the right direction."
"I think that's really important,” Perlozzo said. “I look at some of the good clubs out there that have been winning year after year and not necessarily with the highest payroll all the time and they have the same kind of people all the time.
"I think that Mike and Jim and I work real well together. Hopefully, Peter sees that and allows me to go ahead and do some of the things I want to do along and put together a staff that we can continue to work with our guys. I think it's really important to have a real good staff, somebody that you can bank on and will have your back and has the respect of the players."
Perlozzo has taken his fair share of criticism for the way the club has played this season. He said losses bother him much more now than they did when he was a coach. But he said he tries not to pay much attention to what the media says and writes.
"If I happen to flick on a talk show and it's not going to be pretty, I will turn it," he said. "Mainly because I don't want to cloud my mind with trash. Same way with the newspapers. I had a nice conversation with Bobby Cox in Atlanta and I said, 'Bobby, how do you do it all the time?' He said, 'Sam, I don't read the papers and I don't listen to talk shows. That way I can come in with a smile on my face everyday.' I said, 'You know what, that's pretty good advice.' "
Perlozzo's wife Beth has seen a definite change in her husband since he took the position, especially when it comes to losing.
"He does the same homework he always did, but now he has a lot more to worry about," she said. "It's not just infielders, not just what was going on at third base. Now, he worries about everything. He is 24/7. We go to bed thinking about it, we wake up and start all over again. It's just everywhere and there is no quit."
Perlozzo said he knows it will take time to turn the Orioles back into a winner. The lack of pitching, especially out of the bullpen, has been the biggest cause of the team’s woes this year. But he also knows positives have come out of their struggles.
"I am going to tell you, it hasn't been easy," Perlozzo said. "I am constantly sitting on the bench trying to figure out how we are going to get through a game instead of how we are going to win a game. Even through all of that, we have been able to get a couple of our kids to come up here and do well, and I think that's key for next year."
Pitchers Adam Loewen, Chris Ray, Chris Britton and Kurt Birkins are the hope for the future. Orioles fans have seen glimpses of it this year.
"I'd like to see us get our rotation going a little bit,” said Perlozzo. “I'd like to see Adam Loewen continue to pitch well. I'd like to see Daniel Cabrera now that he is back here pitch well. I'd like to see Erik Bedard continue to pitch as good as he can pitch.
“I really want us to stockpile some arms because the name of the game is pitching. We need to get that pitching going and I would like to see that develop the last six weeks and to see the team hang in there and battle like they have all year for the most part."
This season has been a tough one for the skipper to take from the standpoint of wins and losses, but he said he is having fun.
"I know sometimes it doesn't look like it, not when you are in the process of it,” said Perlozzo. “But when its all said and done, it's very gratifying."
Issue 1.17: August 17, 2006