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Mentor On The Mound

May 6, 2008

O's Pitching Coach Kranitz Is Throwback
To Predecessors Like Brecheen, Bamberger And Miller

By Jim Henneman 

Of all the encouraging signs displayed by the Orioles through the early weeks of the 2008 season, none excited their aroused fan base as much as the promise shown by a reenergized pitching staff that appeared to be thriving under the tutelage of new pitching coach Rick Kranitz.

The disappointment of the previous two years, when veteran guru Leo Mazzone admittedly didn’t have enough arms needed to perform the expected miracles, has given way to newfound optimism generated by the enthusiasm of fresh faces with live arms. It has been enough to spawn hope that pitching, once the backbone of the organization’s success, is on a “back to the future” mission that could return the club to its former role of prominence, back to a time when continuity was as much an organizational trademark as pitching, defense and three-run homers.

Rick Kranitz
(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)

To say the Orioles' pitching staff has been in a constant state of disarray for more than a decade is like saying the basement closet is a tad messy or that Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson had nice careers. 

When the decision was made to swallow the last year of Mazzone’s contract and bring Kranitz on board, it marked the 10th time in the last 14 years that the Orioles changed pitching coaches. That is an alarming changeover rate that mirrored the direction in which the club was headed -- and where it seemed to land with a resounding thud a year ago.

During the first six years of that upheaval, no pitching coach lasted more than one year. Mike Flanagan took two turns (’95 and ’98), while Pat Dobson (’96), Ray Miller (’97), Bruce Kison (’99) and Sammy Ellis (2000) helped keep the revolving door in motion. Neither Mark Wiley (2001-04), Miller (2004-05) nor Mazzone (2006-07) could survive long enough to introduce any stability to a clearly unsettled situation. Now the O’s can only hope that trio closed out an era noted equally for turmoil and high ERAs.

George Bamberger
(Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

That period of time is in stark contrast to the fledgling years of the Orioles in the American League when, rather remarkably considering the tenuous nature of the job, the team employed only three pitching coaches in over three decades. It was during the first 31 years that the building blocks for success were laid 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate under the guidance of Harry “the Cat” Brecheen, (1954-1967), George Bamberger (1968-1977) and Miller (1978-85).

Ironically, except for a couple of days after Kenny Rowe replaced Miller and was unaware of the lineage history of the number, 31 was worn by O’s pitching coaches throughout the first 38 years of the club’s existence. Until it became something of a symbol of the club’s pitching excellence, there was no significance to the number other than the fact that it was the one Brecheen brought when he came to Baltimore with the St. Louis Browns and was later inherited by his successors.

In all, there have been 15 pitching coaches in the Orioles’ 55-year history -- 12 of them coming in the last 24 seasons -- with Miller, who also had a two-year stint as manager, serving three terms; Flanagan and Wiley served two each. Through it all, from the first to the most recent, Brecheen to Kranitz, there is one common thread -- Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who pitched for the first three and has observed the others from the close proximity of the television booth and the practice field since his retirement in 1984. He has hopes that in Kranitz the Orioles have a coach/teacher/leader to jumpstart the “back to the future” movement.

Harry Brecheen
(Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

“Harry was a good ol' boy,” said Palmer, reflecting back on his early days with Brecheen. “He’d always stand behind you while you were warming up, rooting you on, being a cheerleader. He wasn’t technical -- we did all of our throwing off the mound, there was no real program then. But everybody loved Harry, he was your best friend, and you’d do anything for him.”

Indeed, on the closing day of the 1967 season, after being told he wouldn’t return the next year, Brecheen skipped the last game in Cleveland rather than have to endure an emotional farewell with his “boys.” He said goodbye to the staff at the hotel early that morning and quickly departed for his home in Ada, Okla., where he remained in virtual seclusion until he passed away four years ago.

Brecheen’s time here coincided with the phasing out of the “old school” theory that pitchers got in shape by throwing -- and doing little else.

“Any running we did was on our own,” Palmer said. Nevertheless, the Orioles developed a solid core of young pitchers, Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker, Chuck Estrada, Jack Fisher, Steve Barber, Wally Bunker and Palmer among them, and it was this group that enabled the Orioles to break free from their second division shackles and develop into genuine contenders in the early ’60s.

However, when some of the young pitchers broke down, most notably Palmer and Bunker, the club made a move to an organizational approach. Harry Dalton had risen from minor league director to replace Lee MacPhail as general manager, and he wasted little time dipping into the farm system.

Bamberger, the minor league pitching instructor, George Staller and Earl Weaver joined Bill Hunter (who had previously managed the club’s rookie league team) on the coaching staff less than a year after the team won its first World Series. Six months later, Weaver was the manager, and the Orioles had in effect brought their minor league program, in reality the real “Oriole Way,” to the big leagues.

Ray Miller
(Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

“George came in with the program he’d been using in the minor leagues, and there was more throwing and running,” Palmer said. “We’d work on windups every day with drills to help us get to the point where we could repeat.”

The system brought to Baltimore was the same one Miller followed in the minor leagues, first as a pitcher winding up his career with the Orioles’ Triple-A team in Rochester and then as Bamberger’s successor as minor league pitching coach.

“You never missed a step,” Palmer said of the transition. “Both were motivators, both had a sense of humor, and both were well organized.”

Palmer recalled a time in 1971 when he, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson were all in the midst of 20-win seasons. “George was making slash marks on the inside of the bill of his cap -- four down and one across -- and he said he had a complete game clause in his contract, and he was keeping track of how many we had.” 

For the record there were 71, all but one by the four 20-game winners. What did it mean for Bamberger, whose teams logged a staggering 614 complete games during his 10 years? Nothing. 

“He didn’t have a clause, he was just prodding us by making us think we would be helping him out,” Palmer said.

To get his point across, Miller did things like have T-shirts made up bearing his slogans and philosophy. “Throw strikes, change speeds, work fast and use all your pitches” was the doctrine he preached.

“He had great preparation and an ability to laugh at himself,” Palmer said, recalling an incident during a preseason game early in Miller’s major league career. “He went out and told Flanagan his rhythm was off. Mike said something like ‘It’s spring training, isn’t it supposed to be off?’ Ray said ‘Good point’ and ran back to the dugout.” 

For the more than 17 years that Bamberger and Miller served as pitching coach it was as though one man had been there the entire time, a period of continuity perhaps unmatched in baseball over the last half-century. But times change, players change, and coaches change -- and now it’s Kranitz’s turn on the carousel. Like manager Dave Trembley, he comes with strong minor league credentials and a feel for what needs to be done. 

“Rick is good -- he’s very, very thorough,” said Palmer, who is one of baseball’s top observers, especially among those out of uniform. “It’s a tough job; you have to deal with 12 or 13 guys, all of whom are different, and you have to do it on the fly.

“The job is to get all of them to be as good as they can be … to maximize their ability and make them believe they are making progress. It’s been hard for these guys to have confidence because they haven’t done it before and you have to convince them they are making progress. He makes it a point to try and talk to everybody every day.”

Kranitz is coming off two highly successful years as pitching coach for Florida and probably his staunchest supporter is Dontrelle Willis, who said the success of the Marlins' young pitchers was because “we were always prepared.”

That seems to be the mantra with Kranitz, and the preparation isn’t always the same. What works for Jeremy Guthrie is not necessarily going to fly with Daniel Cabrera.

The Orioles have a lot of new faces on the pitching staff this year, and a closer inspection reveals that most of them are pitching better than their track records indicate. It’s called progress, which many will say comes with confidence.

“What comes first -- confidence or success? I don’t know,” Palmer said. “But I think Kranitz is very good at instilling confidence.”

It’s still early. The jury has to remain out a while longer, but after a lot of down time, a lot of ERAs in zip code range, and above all a lot of losses, it looks like the Orioles may have finally turned a corner in the pitching department. Kranitz won’t be a throwback to the “good old days;” he’s not Bamberger or Miller. He’s not going to develop a staff with four 20-game winners or one capable of completing 70 games -- in a lifetime. 

But maybe, just maybe, he’ll be the one capable of leading the march “back to the future.”

Issue 3.19: May 8, 2008