Do you remember the lean years? That nearly decade-and-a-half in which the once-proud Orioles franchise was reeling with seemingly no clue as to how to regain its once lofty status in Major League Baseball.
You can pretty much pinpoint the beginning of the losing to when general manager Frank Wren was fired after the 1999 season, just one season into a three-year deal. The Orioles finished that season at 78-84, and while Wren and owner Peter Angelos mixed like oil and water, Wren at least understood how to build a team using free agents and drafting wisely.
What followed was a seemingly non-stop cavalcade of well-intentioned folks who did not have the knowledge needed to create a plan for winning. But most importantly, what former front office executives Syd Thrift, Jim Beattie, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette failed to master was how to work with their boss, Angelos.
And while the mangers bore little resemblance to anyone who inspired much confidence, to be fair, former Orioles managers Ray Miller, Mike Hargrove, Lee Mazzilli Sam Perlozzo and Dave Trembley didn't have “the horses” (my mother used to love to quote the late great Casey Stengel).
But when judging those who led the Orioles from 1998-2011, the flip side is true as well. None of the general managers employed between Wren and Andy MacPhail were ever executives anywhere else after leaving the Orioles. And of the managers mentioned above, only Hargrove received another chance when he was named skipper of the Seattle Mariners.
However, that all changed in June 2007, when Angelos brought in MacPhail to run his team's baseball operations. While the Orioles never experienced success on the field under MacPhail, he did set in motion certain initiatives -- both on the field and off -- that would set the team up for success under the current tandem of manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
Together, Showalter and Duquette have teamed up to make the Orioles a team to be respected and reckoned with.
During the losing era (1998-2011), teams could hardly contain themselves at the chance to pry players away from Baltimore. But now, more times than not, the Orioles win trades. See slugger Mark Trumbo for catcher Steve Clevenger, or outfielder Seth Smith for right-hander Yovani Gallardo.
Fans may look to the end of the Orioles' 2018 season with trepidation regarding the status of would-be free-agents Manny Machado and Zach Britton. But I hesitate for another reason. You see, that is the end of the contract extensions that were awarded to Duquette and Showalter in January 2013.
From the outside, nobody could understand how the Beatles broke up, or how Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis parted ways. In sports, how could Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jimmy Johnson not make it work after two Super Bowl titles? The world is replete with stories of unbridled success by people working together with a common purpose who simply didn't feel warm and fuzzy about one another.
Normally in sports, the owner will hire an executive to run his team and let that person pick his field general. Angelos, for different reasons, has twice had a manager in place and hired his boss, which is not ideal. He first did it when he replaced manager Phil Regan after his one season at the helm of the Orioles in 1995, and then weeks later hired Davey Johnson. Shortly after Johnson was brought on board, Pay Gillick was hired as general manager.
In the case of Showalter, it was MacPhail who handpicked him to be the permanent manager after firing Trembley. Juan Samuel was an interim hire, but MacPhail installed Showalter for the last two months of the 2010 season. MacPhail chose to leave the Orioles after the 2011 season to tend to his ailing father.
By November 2011, when Duquette was hired, Showalter was already firmly ensconced in his seat as the most popular Orioles skipper since Johnson held the post for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
So, I pose the question: If you could only keep one, who would it be, Duquette or Showalter?
For me, the answer is a no-brainer. As much as I view Showalter as one of the few difference-makers in a major league dugout, I think Duquette is the ultimate combination of visionary and grinder in the position that is the hardest to fill in Birdland.
As I have pointed out at various times in various columns, I find Duquette's reemergence as a general manager savant to be one of the most impressive second acts I have ever seen in sports. Doing it while working in close concert with Angelos could not have been easy. He is as tough as they come to work with.
Clearly, my first choice would be to keep both, but the feeling I get is that the Orioles' winningest tandem during the past 35 years will wither on the vine after the 2018 season.
Issue 234: June 2017