SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first hint came three years ago, when the Orioles traded third baseman Ray Knight in spring training. "The job is mine," Craig Worthington announced, ignoring the fact he had skipped Double A and spent only one year at Triple A.
Worthington was ahead of himself then (the Orioles acquired Rick Schu less than a month later) and he was ahead of himself last season, growing snug inside that most deceptive of comfort zones -- his major-league career.
The game bites those who aren't careful, and Worthington is staring at a Doberman right now. When a player declines in seven offensive categories after being named The Sporting News AL Rookie Player of the Year, he can expect a Leo Gomez to come along and bare his fangs.
The third-base duel is supposedly the Orioles' hottest of the spring, but it is not so much a battle between two players as it is a test of one man's resolve. Worthington maintains a clear edge, but he will lose his job the instant he begins thinking he's secure.
That threat didn't exist last season, for Gomez was just starting at Triple A. Then Gomez put together a monster year -- .277 average, 26 homers, 97 RBIs -- and the struggling Worthington couldn't help but notice. "I'm pretending I'm a rookie all over again," he says.
Not for Gomez' benefit.
For his own.
The Orioles listened to trade offers for Worthington all winter, and club officials seemed to be leaning toward Gomez at the start of camp. But even after Gomez hit a solo homer and two-run single in the first intrasquad game yesterday, first-base coach Johnny Oates was saying, "I haven't seen him swing the bat well at the major-league level."
Worthington, 25, did just that in 1989, hitting 15 homers and leading major-league rookies with 70 RBIs. Then there's defense, where Worthington is far superior. Gomez, 24, made four errors in 12 games with the Orioles last September, one more than shortstop Cal Ripken made all season.
The party line is that Gomez was nervous his first month in the majors. The bottom line is that he has minor-league options remaining, so the Orioles can return him to Rochester without difficulty, forcing Worthington to prove once and for all that he belongs.
He started the spring right, arriving four days early rather than anger the coaching staff a second straight year by being the last player in camp. Even before that incident, many in the organization viewed him as smug, even arrogant -- not that anyone said so in 1989.
Anyway, the perception is changing, and the entire staff seems to be adopting a softer approach. Hitting coach Tom McCraw points out Worthington finally is volunteering for extra swings. Oates points out he always takes the most ground balls of any infielder, including the Ripkens.
"His work habits are just fine for me," says Oates, who was Worthington's manager at Rochester in 1987. "The only thing is, he has to be asked to do everything. He's not going to do it on his own."
Worthington is hardly alone in that regard, and his seeming indifference might simply be a reflection of his laid-back approach. Yet Oates freely admits, "He might be a better offensive ballplayer if he came and asked for more work."
Naturally, Worthington isn't sure he agrees; he says he indeed worked hard last season, but bogged down after trying to get off to a fast start. Whatever, his .226 average ranked 65th among the 68 AL hitters who had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. He finished with only eight homers and 44 RBIs.
"I didn't get comfortable," insists Worthington, who failed to earn a raise from his $207,500 salary. "A lot of guys do that. But you look at guys like Dewey [Evans] and Cal [Ripken], they don't slack off. You can't take this game lightly. It will humble you fast."
Sounds convincing enough, until manager Frank Robinson says, "Sometimes things come too easy, and you have a tendency to get a little complacent, a little relaxed. It's only natural. You seem to think it's going to go on. But you should realize somebody's always after your job."
Well, somebody is after Worthington's job now.
Somebody young and hungry and strong.
"It's a growing process," McCraw says. "Maybe it's his bad year. Maybe it's Leo's year. I don't know. But he's been coming to me [for extra hitting]. So far he's having a helluva spring, work-wise. It's impressive."
It's his only choice.