Shagging stability Despite career year, Milligan knows writing on dugout wall has him in left

March 04, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Randy Milligan emerged from the clubhouse tucking his uniform jersey into his pants. It was 8:35 on a Sunday morning, a time he'd rather be in pajamas. But he was late for class, and his instructors were waiting.

The class is Leftfield 101, and for Milligan it's not an elective, but a requirement. In fact, the Orioles consider the subject matter so urgent, they again asked Milligan to be the first player on the field yesterday -- even with a tornado watch in effect.

The wind was so strong, hitting coach Tom McCraw said, "I thought the door was going to come off my motel room." Yet there was Milligan, joining former Orioles outfielders Curt Motton and Don Buford outside. "Tornadoes, hurricanes, I don't care," he yelled. "Nothing fazes me."

He strutted toward the diamond in that gregarious way of his, joking with Motton, the Orioles' outfield coach, and Buford, a minor-league official. This was the Randy Milligan everyone remembers, the slugger with the huge smile. This is the Randy Milligan who is largely absent this spring.

"The Moose" still has his lighter moments, but he has turned somber, knowing the Orioles want him to vacate first base for Glenn Davis and leave the DH spot for Dwight Evans and Sam Horn. Such is his reward for a breakthrough 1990 season, for hitting 20 home runs and ranking third in the league in on-base percentage before separating his left shoulder Aug. 7.

His shoulder is fine, and he still figures to play every day, but the Davis trade changed everything. Milligan knows it, understands FTC it, but doesn't like it. "Nothing against Glenn -- I like him as a person, and I respect him as a ballplayer," Milligan said. "But somehow, I just feel slighted, that whatever I did wasn't enough."

Manager Frank Robinson claims he merely wants to determine if Milligan can play another position, and insists nothing is decided. Milligan, 29, isn't fooled by such lip service; he recognizes the Orioles' most dangerous lineup has him in left, so long as his hitting doesn't suffer.

"Let's just say I know I'm going to play out there," he said. "I guess it's up to me how much."

Which is why he's practicing every day before regular workouts with Motton, who instructs him in left while Buford hits him fungoes. Rookie first baseman David Segui undergoes the same routine after workouts, and Robinson says he plans to include Davis in the outfield experiment as well.

Of course, the Orioles won't dare ask Davis to change positions if they're serious about signing him to a long-term contract. Nor will they turn leftfield over to the unproven Segui. Milligan is 6 feet 1, 228 pounds, but he's the best man for the job, the best athlete of the three.

"His biggest problem is going to be fear," Motton said. "It's an embarrassment for an outfielder to make an error, especially on a fly ball. Going out there with that fear tends to make you panic, make your hands hard, make you tense. If you're confident, you don't have any of that."

Motton had Milligan working at half-speed before the rains came, making sure he employed proper technique. Buford, standing near the pitcher's mound, started him off with grounders every which way. "Good!" Buford would say to himself as he watched Milligan. "All right."

Buford hit some windblown flies, then moved to shallow left and started slapping balls off the fence, forcing Milligan to play the angles. Motton, never far away, often would interrupt to explain the correct footwork or approach. His pupil was eager to learn.

"I don't want to be a below-average outfielder," said Milligan, who worked hard to improve his defense at first. "I don't want people to say, 'Well, the only weak part on the team is Randy Milligan playing left.' I want to go out there and make a smooth transition, let my teammates know I can do a good job. It's a challenge I can overcome."

He jokes about his arm, which he predicts would be the "weakest in the league." But his principal worry would be chasing balls down the line. Centerfielders Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson would help cover the gap. Shortstop Cal Ripken might be the best at his position at catching popups over his head.

"It could be a lot worse," cracked Milligan, who began his pro career in 1981 as a shortstop and outfielder. "It could be an all-rookie outfield where none of us would know what we're doing. Or it could be me, Larry Sheets and Jim Traber."

He spent nearly 30 minutes in left yesterday, finishing in time for a 9:15 outfielders' meeting. As he strolled off the field, he asked Motton, "Do I have to go?" Randy Milligan knew the answer, but he keeps wondering just the same.

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