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Mazzilli finally cutting teeth as manager

WashPost: With Orioles' struggles, the questions will come

Over the last week, Lee Mazzilli has become a major league manager.

That distinction doesn't arrive the day you're hired or get that nice office. It doesn't happen in spring training with a meeting and a pep talk. Even on Opening Day, when the crowd at Camden Yards cheers you louder than any player, you still haven't tasted the true job. And when you breeze through the first seven weeks with a winning record -- after six losing Orioles seasons in a row -- you certainly can't call yourself a big league manager yet. All you've done is write lineups, wave to the bullpen and give signs. You haven't really managed.

Because, in the big leagues, the job doesn't even start until you lose. And lose. And lose a few more. Then everybody looks at you for the answer. Skipper, we've lost six in row. If we don't get clubbed 11-0 or 11-3, we lose 3-2 or 12-9. Our kid pitchers can't get 'em out. Our hitters have gone cold. We're under .500. You took Rodrigo Lopez out of the bullpen, where he was nails. But you stuck with Mike DeJean, who just kept getting nailed.

What do we do now, boss?

That's when you become a big league manager. That's where Mazzilli is now. Welcome to the job, Lee.

"You have to stay positive. We must play positive. I have to be positive as well," said Mazzilli after that sixth loss.

How many more "positives" before we start to worry?

Now we'll start to learn, as will he, whether Mazzilli is the leader that wise heads such as Joe Torre and Mike Flanagan think he will become. It's a long process. If he has a fine 15-year career, he should only face about 100 more losing streaks like this one.

None of this, of course, comes as any surprise to Mazzilli, who played 14 seasons in the majors and was a bench coach for the Yankees for the last four seasons. "The fact that [teams and players] can get so hot or so cold is actually part of the beauty of the game," Mazzilli said this week. "It's so unpredictable. And it can turn so fast."

Coping is the key. Though coping with success, as he has as a Yanks bench coach the last four years, is far more pleasant.

"I've known Lee since he was a baby. We actually played together in '76 and '77," said Yankees Manager Torre, who was in his last seasons when Mazzilli was in his first with the Mets. "He's played for me, coached for me. He's never been afraid to fail, never been afraid of the heat. That's special. 'Not afraid to fail' is a good philosophy. Stay out of the gray. Be decisive."

Mazzilli will need all that decisiveness and obvious self-confidence because the Orioles, despite the addition of high-priced Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez, are a team that needs a couple of more major free agent signings after this season, plus the emergence of at least two front-line pitchers from their farm system, to be a plausible 90-plus win team.

For now, they're finally entertaining to watch again. But, though Mazzilli sees half-empty glasses as nearly full, the Orioles have plenty of holes, especially in their starting rotation that will seriously limit them all season. "What we have is what you have to use," Mazzilli said, as his young pitchers kept gaining experience the old-fashioned way -- through extensive pain.

Defying tradition and superstition, Mazzilli picked No. 13 for his jersey. Somebody, if he's brave enough, should ask him what number he'd like for his straightjacket, because, if you manage long enough, it'll drive you nuts, guaranteed.

How crazy is baseball? It's so zany that it seems no team ever plays .500 ball for long. You're either on fire or turn to ice. Last year, the Orioles had winning streaks of 7-2, 4-0, 9-2, 6-0, 4-0 and 5-1. Total: 35-5. Pretty good? Actually, that's terrible. Their losing streaks were 1-5, 1-8, 1-7, 3-10, 0-8, 0-9, 1-6 and 2-7. Total: 9-60. That's eight trips to hell in just six months.

Mike Hargrove was fired, in part, because after four years he stopped finding ways to end the slumps. Late in seasons, the plunges multiplied on themselves. He'd run out of strategic ideas or motivational twists. By season's end, he just looked exhausted. And Hargrove was good enough to win five division titles in Cleveland and the only two Indians pennants since '54. For nearly two months, life at Camden Yards was blissful for Mazzilli, who had tools Hargrove never dreamed of in his make-do years with kids and journeymen. The Orioles slugged enough to overcome their awful starting pitching and stole enough bases to disguise the 18 errors made by the left side of their infield. But now, here it comes, the reality of big league managing.

Orioles hitters have cooled. Could they be a bit tired? Mazzilli used the same eight players in at least 39 of the team's first 41 games. No other team has used that many players that much. The team's infant rotation has deteriorated. Mazzilli tried to instill confidence by letting them try to pitch out of their jams. Instead, more often than not, they've discovered the indignity of being bombed. First Matt Riley, then Kurt Ainsworth got demoted to the minors. Maz's choice for backup catcher went 2 for 25 and is gone.

All this, of course, is second-guessing, the unwanted houseguest of losing streaks. A few wins and it evaporates. However, Mazzilli should reverse one decision quickly: Send Rodrigo Lopez back to the bullpen, where he was becoming a star. That's probably the only significant mistake Mazzilli has made. There's nothing wrong with being wrong; the only sin is staying wrong. Just a week ago, Mazzilli seemed so much smarter. That's just the fickle unfair nature of managing. Excellent decisions backfire routinely. Bad luck or hot foes can outweigh decent play for a week or two. So, patience is essential.

For the Orioles and Mazzilli the task of learning about each other and growing together is just beginning. Fortunately, the new manager's communication skills have gotten strong reviews. Mazzilli's door isn't just open. Few Orioles walk past it without being hailed and invited inside. Nothing official, just chat about everything from baseball to how's-the-family. That's Maz's natural manner. .

"To succeed, you've got to believe you're one of the best. When they learn what other people think of them, it can help," Mazzilli said. "My job is to put players in the right spots where they can have success and build that confidence."

Still, Mazzilli is a rookie and it will show. On Wednesday night, the Orioles sent their eight starting players, aside from catcher Lopez, out beyond second base to stand in a straight line during the national anthem. No one had ever seen a team do this. A motivational gimmick to break that losing streak? After a mid-game comeback, the Orioles blew a lead and lost again. Once, Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who was never pleasant, and seldom even civil, except during losing streaks, was upset that owner Edward Bennett Williams, a renowned orator, gave an inspirational pregame talk when they were playing poorly.

"Please, don't do that again," begged Weaver.

"Why?" said Williams.

"If we lose," said Weaver, "what are you gonna to tell 'em tomorrow?"