SARASOTA, Fla. -- "How's it look?"
If it's spring training, the voice must be Kevin Hickey's. Come to think of it, pick any time of year -- winter, spring, summer or fall -- and Hickey would still want to know his chances with the Orioles.
The question never loses its relevance for the wacky lefthander known as the Hic-Man. Long before Jim Palmer, he scripted the original Orioles' comeback story, and he never wants it to end.
"Doesn't he drive people nuts?" asks his wife Terri. "Kevin's really hyper. And he's a little worse during spring training. It's not my favorite time of year. He's a maniac, no doubt."
Of course, it's one thing for the Hic-Man to badger reporters for their latest analysis of the Opening Day roster, and quite another for him to drive Terri and his three daughters to the brink of insanity.
Hickey, 35, is facing his usual impossible odds in his attempt to return to the Orioles' bullpen, and as Terri says, "The more things heat up, the worse it gets."
The Hic-Man doesn't just bounce off walls.
He scrubs them.
"He Windexes everything -- and there's a million windows in this house," Terri says, referring to their temporary Florida residence. "He picks up all the dust off the carpet. He paces around, he does dishes."
"She calls me Hazel," Hickey says. "I'm very immaculate."
On the mound, Hickey is just as wired, if not as clean. When he erupted into his familiar thigh-slapping frenzy after a 1-2-3 ninth inning yesterday, you would have thought he had just earned a save in the seventh game of the World Series.
Actually, all he did was protect an 8-0 lead in the Orioles' exhibition opener against the Chicago White Sox. "He's more 'off' than I am," says second baseman Bill Ripken, the team's leading clubhouse wag. "I might be in leftfield, but he's in the bleachers."
Hickey, though, has an excuse: His rollercoaster past.
He pitched for the White Sox from 1981-83, then spent five years in the minors. Four teams released him during that stretch, enough to make a man paranoid the rest of his career.
Now, after a dismal 1990 season, he's in trouble again. Two other veterans, Mike Flanagan and Paul Kilgus, could easily claim the two spots for lefthanded relievers. A third, Joe Price, is eligible to join the club May 1.
Hickey finished 1-3 with one save and a 5.13 ERA last year, but here's the most telling statistic of all: Lefthanded hitters started 0-for-13 against him, then went 12-for-33 (.364) -- a disturbing trend for a reliever with such a narrowly defined role.
Manager Frank Robinson would prefer someone he isn't afraid to use for several innings, against all hitters. Hickey appeared in 37 games last season, but pitched only 26 1/3 innings. Flanagan and Kilgus might prove more versatile.
Then again, it's foolish to dismiss the Hic-Man, who remains a favorite of Robinson's. He suffered from a sore arm last season, but wouldn't admit it. "I guess I'm a stubborn Irishman," Hickey concedes. "I think I can overcome anything."
Terri, his wife of eight years, thinks so too. "I used to wonder about him every spring," she says. "But I have no doubts he'll make the team. I don't care about the competition. He's in the best shape of his life."
Hickey says he lost 11 pounds in the offseason, working out three times a week at Memorial Stadium and twice a week at Cal Ripken's home. He also was a hard-hitting defenseman in a local ice hockey league.
"In between for exercise he'd vacuum the three levels of our house," Terri says. "We'd all be sick with the flu. He'd say he had to go work out. I was like, 'Please do, please go, dear.' "
Now his fastball is back in the 88-89 mph range, and he's excited about his curveball and slider too, dismissing all negative thoughts. "You've still got to do it between the lines," he says, "but I've got to do it between the ears."
Watching him at camp, no one would ever know he's in jeopardy. One minute, he's engaged in a riotous exchange with college basketball announcer Dick Vitale. The next, he's doing his impersonation of general manager Roland Hemond for "This Week in Baseball."
"You never know what will come out of his mouth next," says Rochester catcher Jeff Tackett, whose locker is within yakking distance of Hickey's. "He can't sit still, he can't stand still, he can't keep quiet. Ten seconds is the longest I've heard him go."
Meanwhile, Terri suffers.
"I tell him to go golf, take a swim, do something," she says. "But I'm used to him. I just shake my head and say, 'If you want to go do some laundry, go do it.' "
He can't help but clean.
He can't help but dream.