Horn gives himself more than slim chance Leaner Oriole fattens up on early-spring pitching

March 10, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There was a time when Sam Horn and self-discipline did not show up in the same sentence, but that was before his major-league survival became a matter of self-determination.

The new Sam Horn ate a lot of lettuce the past five months. He played a lot of racquetball in the off-season. He trimmed almost 20 pounds off his 6-foot-5 frame and now weighs 234. He arrived in camp a lean, mean hitting machine, or so it would seem after his first two exhibition appearances.

Horn hit another mammoth home run yesterday to highlight a three-hit performance in the Baltimore Orioles' 8-3 Grapefruit League loss to the New York Yankees at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

He reached base in his first six preseason plate appearances before lining out in the eighth inning of yesterday's game. He has two home runs, three singles, a walk and four RBI in two games. He has come to play, that much is obvious to all who have seen him at work.

"I wanted to come here and worry about stepping in the batter's box without having to worry about stepping on the scale," he said.

This was not entirely a case of self-realization. Manager Frank Robinson took Horn aside at the end of last season and made it clear that if he wanted to get another year in the major leagues under his belt, he had better take care of the stuff hanging over it. The message apparently got across.

Horn could not be assured of even the same limited playing time he got in 1990 (246 at-bats), not after the club signed Dwight Evans and traded for first baseman Glenn Davis. The designated-hitter spot figures to get a little crowded, so it was important to stake a claim as soon as possible.

"He's serious about competing for a job, and it's time," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "People always project that if he had 500 at-bats, he'd hit 30 home runs and drive in 100. It's time for him to make Frank give him 500 at-bats. You don't ask Frank for them. You force Frank to give them to you. It's time to step forward."

Horn has done that, but first impressions count for only so much. He hit two three-run homers on Opening Day last season, but ended up spending time in the minor leagues before the season was over.

"He has done a hell of a job so far," McCraw said. "He has a good attitude. He has to maintain it through the entire year, but he is very impressive at this point."

The home run yesterday was measured at 440 feet, and it wasn't hit nearly as hard as the one he drove into a strong wind in the exhibition opener Thursday. But the Orioles aren't getting all that excited about the long home runs. Everyone knew that he could hit the ball as far as anyone long before the club signed him to a minor-league contract in February 1990. Robinson was more impressed that two of the three singles have been to the opposite field.

"The home run was great," Robinson said, "but what I like is the way he hit the ball to the left side. He hit what they gave him; that's what was impressive to me.

"He's going to hit home runs. We know that. I want to see him go with the pitch. When he takes the ball to left, that will force pitchers to give him more balls he can pull."

Horn is enjoying the instant results, but he is trying not to get too excited about them. There are 30 exhibition games to go, and they don't even count.

"I'm going to have some good days and some bad days," he said. "I just hope to continue swinging the bat well and carry it into the season. I don't want to peak here. I just want to show Frank that I'm the guy he wants in the DH spot when there's a right-handed pitcher on the mound."

He has done that more by the shape he arrived in than by the way he has crushed the ball the first couple of times out.

"Cal Ripken said something the other day that kind of fits," Horn said. "The better shape you get yourself into during the off-season, the longer you're likely to go without getting injured and the faster you're likely to heal when you do."

That's part of it, but the Orioles were looking for an indication that Horn's desire was as big as his talent. The early returns are encouraging, but Horn will have to prove it all year.

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