SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was the worst-kept secret in the Orioles' clubhouse. Ben McDonald so preferred Bob Melvin as his catcher, he'd openly inquire about the opposing pitchers for the next series, knowing Melvin usually played against lefthanders.
Truth be told, McDonald wasn't the only starting pitcher to calculate along those lines. "Everyone wanted Melvin," Jeff Ballard admitted sheepishly, reluctant even now to offend Mickey Tettleton, the club's other catcher last season.
Enough whispering already: Popular as Tettleton remains with his former teammates, he was no mastermind behind the plate -- especially when compared to Melvin, who has emerged as one of the game's top defensive catchers since joining the Orioles in 1989.
The Orioles rewarded Melvin this winter by giving him a two-year contract, and by trading Tettleton and his 160 strikeouts to Detroit. Money was one reason: Tettleton will earn more this season ($1.6 million) than Melvin in his next two ($1.55 million). But defense was another.
Manager Frank Robinson said, "I don't want to talk negative about a guy when he's gone. It always sounds like sour grapes." Fine, here are the facts: The Orioles' ERA was 3.89 with Melvin last season, 4.29 with Tettleton. Melvin also threw out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal, Tettleton 21 percent.
"Bob goes out of his way to really dig into your mind," pitcher Dave Johnson said. "He has a better understanding of the game you want to call. You're not out there constantly guessing, shaking, shaking, shaking him off."
That's one problem the pitchers had with Tettleton, whose deficiencies were magnified last season when he grew distracted by his prolonged batting slump. Melvin, as attentive as he is vocal, always sensed what his pitchers wanted to throw. Tettleton lacked his intuition.
The pitcher ultimately decides fastball or curve, but as one who asked not to be identified explained, "It's mentally exhausting, looking for what I want, thinking, 'When is he going to have a clue what I'm going to do?' By the time he gets to it, I'm already mentally out of it."
Melvin, according to Ballard, is "really into the game. He takes a lot of responsibility upon himself. When you don't have a good game, he's real upset. It's like he failed too. He takes a lot of pride in calling a good game. It's more important to him than getting a couple of hits."
Not that Melvin is defensive-minded only: For someone who batted a career-high .243 last season, he hits remarkably well in the clutch: Witness his .282 average with men in scoring position as an Oriole, and the fact that 40 of his 69 RBIs have come with two outs.
Still, Tettleton hit 41 homers to Melvin's six over that same two-year span. Indeed, it's the rare catcher who excels both ways (Johnny Bench comes to mind, as does Carlton Fisk). The Orioles are gambling Melvin and Chris Hoiles will approximate Tettleton's offensive numbers.
"Defense takes a lot out of a catcher mentally," said first-base coach Johnny Oates, a former major-league catcher himself. "A good defensive catcher is thinking two or three innings ahead. It's tough to leave the dugout and zero in on a pitcher."
Oh, Tettleton had his faults. He repeatedly would call for breaking pitches in tight situations, figuring "If I can't hit it, they can't hit it." And Melvin believes Tettleton often was too harsh with young pitchers who required a lighter touch.
Still, Ballard said with a shrug, "I didn't mind Mickey," while veteran reliever Joe Price claims Tettleton didn't deserve to be a scapegoat. "A lot of guys used it as an excuse," he said. "You can't do that. You can only be a young pitcher for so long."
The irony is, Melvin heard many of the same criticisms himself in San Francisco before getting traded to the Orioles for catcher Terry Kennedy. The Giants wanted him to be more assertive, but manager Roger Craig insisted on calling important pitches.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" said Melvin, 29. "They told me I didn't have any leadership ability, so I didn't. Here I was supposed to show leadership, so I did. Frank [Robinson] gave me the opportunity."
Craig, an expert at handling pitchers, should have seen Melvin in Oakland last summer, coaxing a victory out of McDonald on a day the rookie lacked control of every pitch but his two-seam (sinking) fastball.
"He said, 'You've got one pitch, you can win with this one pitch,' " McDonald recalled. "He talked me into it. If you told me before the game I could beat the Oakland A's with my two-seam fastball only, I would have said you were crazy."
Melvin isn't crazy, he's smart.
That much was never a secret.