Like the Orioles, GM Dan Duquette has made a winning comeback

SARASOTA, FLA. – Very early in the question-and-answer session at Orioles Fanfest , a young fan stood and made a pronouncement instead.

“Mr. Duquette, I want to thank you for doing nothing,’’ the fan said to GM Dan Duquette.

Everybody laughed, including Duquette, who should have been considered, along with Billy Beane, the GM of the year in 2012, even if he seemed to get overlooked, again.

Duquette, who did a brilliant job in a return GM engagement after 10 inexplicable years out of the GM job, can enjoy a laugh after the year he had.  He appreciated the remark, not that his goal was to do as little as they did this offseason. (A national columnist recently ranked their offseason as 28th best of 30 teams, to which Duquette responded, “Where did he pick us last year?’’)

The Orioles fan was being genuine, as that town loves its team again. Camden Yards, after a decade as a ghost town, is a hot place again.

Duquette didn’t purposely stand pat (besides the long extensions for deserving Duquette and Buck Showalter, the Orioles’ biggest signing was a re-signing of reclamation project Nate McLouth, for $2 million). “It’s not that he didn’t give it an effort. “We tried,’’ Duquette said. “We wanted to get an established pitcher.’’

A pitcher and a hitter. That was supposedly the great winter goal.

Indeed, the Orioles made a play for Cy Young winner R.A Dickey (who Showalter predicts more of the same from this year). They looked at Justin Upton and Jason Kubel, and others. But in the cases of the trades there was a disagreement over how much they should have to give up.

“I’d rather hold on to our young pitchers,’’ Duquette said.

They kicked the tires on Josh Hamilton. Zack Greinke was on their list. They talked about Adam LaRoche, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. They made an offer for Joe Saunders.

Some players were unrealistic for them. With others, they ultimately decided they didn’t want to give up the draft choice attached.  

Duquette is salesman now, not thought to be his specialty (but he is getting better at it). He will point out the Orioles return a fine young nucleus. He’ll mention how the team that finished the season was much better than the one that started it.

This time they’ll have Manny Machado, McLouth and Miguel Gonzalez for a full year. They’ll have Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis, and yes, Brian Roberts, healthy.

Duquette and Showalter teamed up to bring in cost-effective defensive specialists Alexi Casilla, Travis Ishikawa and Chris Dickerson. In Boston, Duquette brought in Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. Here, he does what he can.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who appreciates it, extended the contracts of Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, the oddest, best GM/manager pairing in the game, through 2018. To do so, he gave Duquette four more years, and Showalter five. (It’s been a career of extremes for Duquette – he was the youngest GM in the game, then out of work for 10 years, now he has a new contract for seven within 16 months of his hiring.)

The Orioles’ payroll will be $90 million, not much compared to the Yankees’ $217 million (that’s the precise number one team has for them). Dollars aside, you can understand any new-found confidence gained from last year when they played the Yankees down to the last few innings of both the division race and ALDS.

“I like our team,’’ Showalter said.  He meant as a group of people but the same applies in terms of the talent.

The Orioles, like Duquette himself, have undergone a renaissance. The team lost 14 straight years. Duquette was out of the game 10.

The Orioles improved an MLB-high 27 games. And Duquette, while perhaps still seen as a little tight of a personality by some, has loosened up to the point of not only doing a good job but enjoying the job as well.

More and more, he’s one of the guys. The players doused him with champagne after they beat the reigning American League champion Rangers in the wild card game, and some players were amused when he calmly put his trademark sneakers in the wash before putting them back on. (The sneakers-and-suit outfit he sports are a trademark.)

He doesn’t seem keen on rehashing the reasons he went 10 years on the sidelines, but he was caught in a moment of introspection Tuesday. “I spend more time with people in one-on-one situations,’’ Duquette said in such a setting. “And I try to enjoy it more. I’m a good big picture guy. I need help from people to implement. I’m sure I can do a better job with relationships.’’

He and Showalter are a great team, beyond their combined 2,000 major-league victories (Buck reached 1,000 early last season, and Duquette, at 930, should make it this year). Buck, who’s mellowed a bit, is the socially adept one. “The things he’s good at, I’m not good at,’’ Showalter said. They are a funny pair. Duquette got married this winter, but as of Tuesday, Buck didn't seem to know it.

Duquette’s being out of the game for 10 years -- from the time John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino fired him at a breakfast at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort eight hours into their ownership regime in spring training of 2002 to Angelos giving him another chance after looking at several others first -- is one of the great mysteries of the game.

It couldn’t have been because he did a bad job in Boston. His pickups of Martinez, Ramirez and Johnny Damon plus the great trade for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek helped build the 2004 team that broke the 85-year jinx. For that, he received a watch from the Red Sox organization in 2005 that he doesn’t wear (he’s not a watch wearer).

That’s about all it got him, as he barely got interviews for jobs. He wasn’t as aggressive in looking until his third child graduated high school a few years ago. He came close to getting the Angels GM job that went to Jerry DiPoto, but that’s about it before Baltimore. He doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the reasons, but it wasn’t about his ability.

Duquette was always a great baseball person, but he seems like he’s enjoying the ride this time. He couldn’t find a quick answer as to why he sat out 10 years after John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino fired him eight hours into their regime as Red Sox owners back in the spring of 2002.

But Duquette does seem a little different, maybe a little more relaxed. He’s never going to be life of the party but he does know how to have fun, and he does have a sense of humor, we are told. Orioles players call him Dan Akroyd, maybe to tease him, for acting stiff. But he seems much looser.

“I always focused on the winning, the destination, without being focused on the journey,’’ he said. “I’m focusing on appreciating day-to-day things.’’

There’s a lot to appreciate from his first year back on the job after 10 away. The Orioles were the second best team in the majors, to Beane’s amazing A’s, the last couple months of last year.

Duquette is quick to credit Andy MacPhail for acquiring Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and others, just like Theo Epstein and Lucchino were kind to recall his contributions in 2003. But it’s clear Duquette, with the aid of his apparent opposite, Showalter, who had one of the greatest managing years ever in 2012, was the perfect hire at the perfect time.

One great move of many he made was to bring in very veteran scouts, such as Fred Ferreira (who suggested Miguel Gonzalez) and Lee Thomas (who suggested McLouth), the Orioles experienced a quick transformation from perennial joke to surprise power. Bringing up Machado, only 20, was another brilliant stroke.

Duquette recalled someone suggesting in early August last season that the Orioles had only a five-percent chance to make the playoffs. Well, they not only reached the postseason but went to Texas and knocked off Texas en route to a matchup with the Yankees that went down to the wire.

In one regard, it’s a surprise the Orioles lost. No one was better at winning the close ones than them. For more than a century, in fact, no one posted better than their 29-9 record in one-run games. Their winning streak in extra-inning games was close to crazy.

Not everyone believes this can be duplicated. One skeptical competitor, mocking the Orioles’ do-little winter, said, “They obviously plan to win 16 straight extra-inning games again.’’

The Orioles decision-makers don’t see it as a joke, though. “It’s not luck. You don’t get lucky over 162 games,’’ Showalter said.

His explanation is simple, really. “Our bullpen was really, really good,’’ he said.

The Orioles can’t repeat that sort of magic, of course. But there’s still plenty to like about them, from their deep and talented pen to all their important players returning from injury to their young (mostly mid-to-late 20s) nucleus to their ridiculously deep rotation, which is so deep Showalter suggested there are 10 to 12 candidates for it.

There’s another thing to like about the Orioles, and that is their reborn and improved GM. He was out a long while for no good reason. He isn’t bragging when he says, “I didn’t forget how to run a baseball club.’’

Indeed, that’s true, even if it means knowing when to do nothing.

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