A maze -- not Maz -- of problems

A maze -- not Maz -- of problems

Grace never won a pennant. Or, even a game. Nice guys may finish last, but those with grace aren't even allowed on the field.

Further proof is the dismissal by the Baltimore Orioles of manager Lee Mazzilli, who for weeks displayed an astounding amount of grace as a promising season crumbled around him.

On a list of people who deserved being called out for the Birds' freefall out of contention, Mazzilli ranked pretty low.

You could blame Jim Hendry, for trading Sammy Sosa into the Orioles' problem.

You could blame Bret Boone, for hitting the foul tip that cracked Javy Lopez's right hand in late May.

You could blame Sidney Ponson, for dereliction in his duties as a staff ace.

You could blame Rafael Palmeiro, but first you'd have to dig his head out of the sand.

But Mazzilli? Sure, he is not a strategic genius, often sending out lineups that appeared to have been assembled on a Scrabble board. But there aren't many Einsteins sitting on benches today.

No, Lee Mazzilli's worst offense was being in the wrong place at the wrong time: the Orioles' hot seat, when the house of cards he helped erect crumbled.

Only on Wednesday, a group of reporters idled away time in the visitors' clubhouse at Jacobs Field by compiling the early handicap for the sport's major postseason awards.

When the subject turned to American League Manager of the Year, someone quickly noted, "Mazz will get some votes," and others in the crowd nodded their agreement.

A few hours later, Mazz needs moving vans, not votes.

The day Lopez went down, the Orioles were a dozen games over .500 and three games over second-place Boston. When he returned, exactly two months later, Baltimore was in third place, already in the middle of the swoon that shows no end.

Yet, whatever blame may also be directed toward co-general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, they can't be blamed for dismissing Mazzilli.

With their team's season spinning rapidly out of control, the outcry for action from Orioles fans has been deafening. They had to do something visible, dramatic, something packing a possibly sobering punch.

Forever, managers have filled that role. The dog-eared saying is, "You can't fire 25 players." To that, general managers would add, "You can't fire yourself." Nor, for that matter, players' pharmacists.

Lee Mazzilli relieved of duties

Fresh off an apprenticeship as Joe Torre's bench coach in the Bronx, Mazzilli surprised everyone on Nov. 7, 2003, when he became the Orioles' choice to replace Mike Hargrove. Mazzilli had always been an ardent student of the game, but had given few outward signs of his accumulated baseball smarts.

Unfortunately, those surprised by his appointment included Peter Angelos, who happens to own the club. So Mazzilli spent his entire tenure on thin ice and under the microscope, the double-whammy of tough working conditions.

There is no telling how often, during the last season-and-a-half, Beattie and Flanagan had to talk Angelos into more rope.

Ultimately, their persuasiveness and rope both ran out.

At the outset of a slide that had reached 16 losses in 18 games, Mazzilli hoped to turn it around.

By the middle of the eddy, he hoped to not suffer critical career injuries in the fall.

By Thursday afternoon, he had to be relieved to have been relieved, so to speak.

Watching Mazzilli squirm through Monday afternoon's postgame press conference -- dealing not with the Orioles' sixth straight loss, but with their loss to suspension of Palmeiro -- you couldn't help but feel his pain.

He scowled. He frowned. His eyes narrowed. For all intents, he looked like a man who had eaten some bad fish, and couldn't figure out a way to get the taste out of his mouth.

But, he said all the right things. Tactfully, optimistically. Gracefully.

Whenever his Birds would show some signs of recovery, Mazzilli's appetite for the stretch would return. His eyes would brighten, as he allowed himself to look forward to the best days in the life of any baseball man.

"I think," he'd say, "September is the fun part of the season."

For him, it can still be, as he unwinds, takes stock of the good impressions he has made, and hopefully begins getting exploratory calls about 2006.

September won't be as much fun for Sam Perlozzo, who inherits both Mazzilli's job, on an interim basis for the remainder of the season, and his problems. Hot seat? If the popular Perlozzo has some asbestos pants, now might be a good time to try them on.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.