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Maz and Frank

The first clue came from the announcers. The Baltimore Orioles were in the process of losing yet another game. That is not exactly an unusual phenomena around the Birds these days as they continue to pull off one of the more impressive collapses in their or that of any other baseball team’s history. What now seems odd is that the Orioles were in first place as late as June 23. Things have not gone particularly well since.

Baltimore was playing somebody- it doesn’t see to matter whom these days- and as usual, losing badly, something along the lines of 8-1 or so. Given the score and general woeful performance being turned in yet again by the home team, O’s television guys Fred Manfra and Buck Martinez felt it necessary to talk about something other than what was happening on the field. It was understandable.

Manfra and Martinez elected not to speculate as to how quickly the Orioles might get what has become just another lousy season around; it has become increasingly obvious the O’s would not and the announcers sounded increasingly silly, even for homers, claiming it would. No point in that.

No, the announcers decided to converse about something that for a decade or so has generated many more positive vibes in August than another lost Orioles season. They began talking about Tech football. It beat the heck out of describing a White Sox bases-clearing triple.

Color guy Buck Martinez seemed quite familiar with Tech football. He related to anybody that might have still been watching as the Orioles fell even further behind, his personal experiences attending games at Tech. He marveled at the electric atmosphere inside Lane Stadium as the television cameras broadcast images of the sparse crowd at Camden Yards headed for the exits in the sixth inning.  This was good stuff.

The telling blow came when Martinez and partner Fred Manfra began praising Frank Beamer for the terrific job he had done and was doing at Tech. While the O’s talking heads lauded Frank the television image settled on Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. Maz wore his usual perplexed look, the one seen often the last six weeks or so, the one that could very easily be read as ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Somebody in the Comcast control truck had a real sense of humor. You just knew what lay in Mazzilli’s future.

The inevitable came a few days later when the Orioles fired Mazzilli. It barely created a ripple in the media frenzy swirling around suspended O’s slugger Rafael Palmeiro. Raffy has been suspended ten games for testing positive for steroid use, this after swearing under oath to Congress last offseason that had never used steroids, forgetting to add, “Unless I have.” Palmeiro had responded to the suspension with what has become the standard defense for players caught with their fingers and bloodstreams in the steroid till, “How did that get there?” Nobody much seemed to believe Raffy’s claim that multi-vitamins contain 500% of a day’s requirement of stanozol. Nice try.

Palmeiro was out in the dock for ten games, but Mazzilli will be gone a lot longer. The announcement of the firing of Maz offered some solid clues as to why the Orioles remain, well, the Orioles, one of baseball’s more poorly-run franchises for about the same amount of time Frank Beamer has been winning big at Tech.

Orioles Executive Vice-President Jim Beattie spouted the usual jargon heard when a manager or coach is fired. “Everybody associated with the big league club,” said Beattie, “we’re all responsible in some way for where we are right now.” Only one seemed to take the hit. You can’t fire the players and it was a safe bet that Beattie wasn’t going to fire himself.

Rare indeed is the pro general manager or college athletic director who will stand in front of a press conference and announce, “Boy, do I stink. I have done such a lousy job running this team that I am going to fire myself.” Nope, that never happens. You also don’t here the GM/AD point out too often who it was that hired the incompetent bum from whom the organization can’t disassociate itself fast enough. Something had to be done to create the impression that the club was doing something about the mess. The chain of command dictates that firing goes downhill.

Lee Mazzilli might turn out one of these days to be the next Earl Weaver or the next Phil Regan. At this point in his managerial career, he looks a lot like the next Regan. Odds are he will get another opportunity with another team. Maz now has his foot in the door of the green room from which new managers are called. Baseball teams tend to hire the same group of guys over and over, no matter how miserable a job was turned in at the new guy’s previous place of employment. The recycling of managers done by baseball, were it done with aluminum, would result in empty landfills and manufacturing plants.

Frank Beamer has a huge advantage over Mazzilli or most any baseball manager: Frank recruits his own players. In pro sports, most managers or head coaches rely on the team’s general manager to bring them in. In Maz’ case, Beattie and club Vice-President Mike Flanagan acquired players. Their record is no better than Mazzilli’s.

The three most important ingredients to success in baseball is pitching, pitching and pitching. The Birds did not have enough. There were sufficient amounts to start the season strong, although that probably had much to do with the Yankees and Red Sox both stumbling out of the gate. Over the course of a long 162-game baseball season, any weakness of a team will be exposed and the O’s pitching problems certainly were.

There were legitimate questions raised about how Mazzilli handled his bullpen, where relievers were trotted out seemingly with little rhyme or reason. That the bullpen was in a position to be handled poorly was a function of the Orioles lacking starting pitching of a quality that wouldn’t require making calls to the bullpen by the third inning of entirely too many games.

The guy or, in the case of the Birds, guys [Beattie and Flanagan] responsible for assembling the lousy starting rotation didn’t seem to be mentioned by Beattie when he announced that he had axed Mazzilli. That goes back to the extreme reluctance by general managers to point the finger at themselves for miserable records. It also leads into another huge advantage Frank had over Maz, that of organization.

Frank Beamer has certainly demonstrated that he is an exceptional football coach. He took over a probation-ridden program in an athletic department that was in disarray. He took the wreckage left behind by Bill Dooley and built a national program virtually from scratch. He did have some help along the way.

Frank Beamer has also been fortunate enough to work for school presidents who perceived the value a strong football program could bring to Virginia Tech. Tech’s former president Dr. Torgerson, a very vocal and visible supporter of the team, set the tone. Torgy, through two athletic directors, made sure that the pieces were put in place for Frank Beamer to succeed at Tech.

From the Merryman Center to Lane Stadium enhancements to practice fields to relatively large budgets to necessary conference membership, Frank has been given what was necessary to build a strong program at Tech. He didn’t have it all to begin with and there was at least one drastic measure employed to attain increased program funding. For the most part, though, Frank has gotten what he needed and run with it. For any coach or manager to win he has to be good, of course, but he also requires a strong support system.

Frank Beamer is a very good coach who has had the good fortune to work for people who, for the most part, knew what they were doing when it came to providing the infrastructure for a strong program. Compare that with what was dealt with by Lee Mazzilli, or any of the fired Oriole managers before him dating back to Earl Weaver.

Good things start at the top and in the case of the Birds that is owner Peter Angelos. His ownership of what used to be one of baseball’s proud franchises has not been one notable for its great success. If Angelos, whose day job is that of lawyer, had handled his class-action lawsuit against the cigarette companies like he has the Birds, farmers throughout Iowa and Kansas would be ripping up their fields of wheat and corn in order to plant tobacco. Things went downhill pretty much from the instant Angelos bought the team.

Angelos was and is a meddling owner. He regarded the farm and scouting systems, the lifeblood of any major league team, as unnecessary and quickly moved to dismantle them. The team quickly rocketed down the standings of the American League East and stayed there. Nice job, Pete.

After a few years when even mediocrity would have been a step in the right direction, Angelos decided to step back and hire baseball people to run his baseball team. Unfortunately for fans of the Orioles, the ‘baseball people’ turned out to be first the bumbling Syd Thrift and then the less-than-dynamic duo of Beattie and Flanagan. Thrift gutted the team in order to trade for a collection of minor-league pitching prospects. The current state of the O’s starting rotation tells you how that worked out.

Beattie and Flanagan replaced the woeful Thrift. Flanagan, a former star pitcher for the Orioles during their halcyon years, was charged with recognizing, acquiring and developing pitching talent. He has proven that as a front office executive, he was a good television color man, the job he held before moving to the front office and being replaced by Martinez.

Beattie, in overall charge of the operation, has shown some rare talents. Chief among them would seem to be his uncanny ability to sign players to huge contracts at the very instant they pass their prime, such as Sammy Sosa and steroid users such as Rafael Palmeiro. Good job, Jim.

These are the clowns most responsible for not only the firing of Lee Mazzilli but for creating the on-field conditions that led to his dismissal. Compared to Angelos, Beattie and Flanagan, Frank Beamer has dealt with veritable sports geniuses in Torgy, his successor Dr. Steger and AD’s Dave Braine and jimmy. The differing conditions created by those seven people have much to do with why Frank is regarded as a great coach in a secure position for as long as he wants the job while Mazzilli is a fired manager.
Fred Manfra and Buck Martinez work for the mercurial Angelos, who is not known for his easy tolerance of criticism. That makes it much more likely they will sit in the booth during bad losses and praise Frank Beamer than state the obvious. They can’t very well point out the real problem, which is that while Lee Mazzilli may or may not have been a bad manager, the real problem is upstairs.

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