SARASOTA, Fla. – I'd never met Dan Duquette before Thursday.
It's probably not that unusual, as I've covered baseball for a couple decades and Dan has spent at least that long avoiding inquisitive types like me.
He was walking with a woman and a little boy, whom I later learned were his girlfriend and her son, and said he had to escort them somewhere and that he'd be back. I figured that would be the last I'd see of Dan for another couple decades.
Five minutes later, however, he'd returned, wearing a white golf shirt maybe a little too snug, black pants that dangled an inch too high over his running shoes, delicate eyeglasses, and around his neck a rectangular credential that told the volunteers it was OK that he stood there.
With something between a smile and grimace the Baltimore Orioles' general manager shook my hand, not too firm and not too limp, and we leaned against a wall behind the plate at rejuvenated Ed Smith Stadium. For a few seconds we watched a spring game stagger past.
I pointed to the young man in the batter's box.
"You know about Evan Gattis?" I asked, already desperate for conversation.
Gattis is the Atlanta Braves catcher who took four years away from the game to search for lasting inner peace and the occasional decent high. He's 25 now and committed to baseball, having found himself – or at least not utterly lost himself – out there in the meantime.
He, of course, has his own problems. He's trying to find not just one person, but a whole freakin' team. Out of the game as we know it for nearly a decade, or about since his former Boston Red Sox transitioned from pathetic to insufferable, Dan was the last man standing when Orioles owner Peter Angelos went looking for a new GM. If this isn't the worst job in baseball, it ranks right there with Frank McCourt's accountant, and it's certainly the most thankless.
Dan was kicked out of Boston with a reputation for being unapproachable and humorless, and returned in Baltimore with a promise to at least try to be more communicative. At this point, Orioles fans would parade a cigar store Indian down Eutaw Street if he delivered the next Jim Palmer and a winning record, and Dan no doubt understands that, but still he was going to give this whole personality thing a shot.
So, he followed along on the Gattis story, nodding at the key parts and glancing over at the big kid in the batter's box who'd left baseball in his young prime and came back only when he was satisfied he'd discovered what there was to discover, or come close enough.
The guy next to me, Duquette, had gone off and helped found the Israeli Baseball League during his big-league exile.
When I was done, for a moment Dan simply stared out at the field. As I searched for something else to say, he smiled.
"I'd find spiritual enlightenment," he said, "with a couple 20-game winners."
Ah, the ultimate self, the Zen of O, meets the worst pitching staff in the American League and the man charged with making something of it.
This, more than Dan revealing his inner Joe Maddon, is clearly what must drive the man. These jobs become available because the last guy left the organization with the league's 14th-ranked ERA, the 14th-ranked WHIP, the 14th-ranked almost anything to do with pitching, and a bullpen that threw nearly 40 more innings than any in the game.
That, and a string of losing – and mostly dreadful – seasons that has reached, yes, 14.
The good jobs don't open up often, and the hot candidates don't chase the career-killer jobs, which left the Orioles and Dan to fall into each other's arms, presenting Dan with a bunch of pitchers – most of them young – with a lot to prove in the AL East.
As manager Buck Showalter said, "We didn't get where we got overnight."
A steady decline has left them overmatched in the division, in which they've finished last every season since 2008. They have, however, improved from 64 to 66 to 69 wins in the past three seasons, a pace that will have them competitive about the time Stonehenge topples over.
"It's not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be," Showalter said.
Still, the job is huge. The likelihood of getting it done, beyond minor improvement, is not. But, they have to start somewhere, and they have to believe in what people call "the process," which is the act of learning to pitch in the major leagues, usually through mediocrity at best and failure at worst.
Dan shrugged. These are guys the organization believes in, or is trying to. The rest is up to them. While the alternative is devastating, it's not like the Orioles haven't lived with devastating for some time now.
For him, it's good enough that he can give it a try, that he can work to make it work.
[ Hot Stove Daily: Baseball dead ends in Baltimore ]
"I'm gratified for the opportunity and I'm enjoying seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen for a while," he said. "It's good to be back in the swing of things."
I asked if anything had changed since those Red Sox days.
"The game's more global," he said. "Players are bigger. They get paid more money. But, you know, it's still the same game."
And the path to true enlightenment still cuts across the pitcher's mound.
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