Ex-Birds win over Astros with 'Why not?' attitude

Ken Rosenthal

March 11, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- What was this? Pitchers who aren' scheduled to throw in exhibition games normally shower and go home. But Pete Harnisch not only stayed for the Houston Astros' Grapefruit League opener Friday, he led the cheering from the top of the dugout steps.

Curt Schilling, meanwhile, has received permission from manager Art Howe to greet his new teammates with shaving-cream pies. And Steve Finley has unleashed the same intense work habits and single-minded dedication he displayed in Baltimore.

"All three guys have a lot of life," said Houston assistant general manager Bob Watson, a former major leaguer. "I wouldn't say it's a surprise, but it's pleasant to see. They've got a lot of enthusiasm, plus they've got the talent."

Call it the spirit of '89, this infusion of former Orioles who celebrated one remarkable "Why Not?" turnaround and now aim to ignite another. "I don't know what Frank did to these guys," a smiling Howe said, referring to Orioles manager Frank Robinson. "But I like it."

None of the three will replace first baseman Glenn Davis in the hearts of Astros fans, not right away, maybe not ever. But the Jan. 10 trade that brought them to Houston gave each an opportunity to make a major impact with perhaps the worst team baseball.

Harnisch, 24, already is listed as the No. 4 starter. Schilling, 24, could become the righthanded closer. And Finley, who turns 26 tomorrow, is expected to be the No. 2 hitter and regular centerfielder. Only Harnisch had as significant a role last season.

The 1991 Astros lack most of the players who produced 75 wins last season, the club's lowest total in a non-strike year since 1978. But the 1989 Orioles were supposed to be just as bad, and came within two games of the division title.

"We're in a very, very similar position," Schilling said. "We have a lot of young people, a lot of no-name guys with ability. We'll be hustling. We already have four starting pitchers -- and one of the game's best [Mike Scott]. The only difference is, we're in a tougher division."

Well, not the only difference.

The Astros lost their Cal Ripken in Davis, and a Gregg Olson isn't likely to emerge from the 20 rookies on their 40-man roster. Gone are the hitters who accounted for 55 of the club's 94 homers last year, the pitchers who accounted for 42 of its 75 wins and 35 of its 37 saves.

Owner John McMullen wants to sell the club, so he stopped offering long-term contracts. The free-agent defections ranged from outfielder Franklin Stubbs (Milwaukee) to starting pitcher Danny Darwin (Boston) to reliever Dave Smith (Chicago Cubs). Davis, of course, was traded to Baltimore.

The Opening Day roster could feature as many as five former Orioles, including reserve catcher Carl Nichols and lefthander Mark Thurmond. "We've got former everybodys," Nichols said. No kidding: A total of 57 players are in camp, and 27 are pitchers.

Jim Palmer could make this team.

So could Jim Traber.

Maybe even Jim Bakker.

But don't tell the former Orioles, who have heard it all before. Both Schilling and Harnisch, in fact, seem far more concerned about their hitting than the possibility of their team losing 100 games. Harnisch watched a 'B' game early yesterday with a helmet on his head and a bat in his hand.

Pitchers still hit in that other league.

Harnisch later made his first exhibition appearance, allowing one run in three innings in the Astros' 9-5 victory over Kansas City. He popped up to second in his first professional at-bat, yet considered it a triumph. "Everyone thought I would strike out," he said.

Schilling, who earned all three of his major-league saves last season, pitched earlier in the 'B' game, showing every sign of becoming the next Mitch Williams. In his second inning, he hit his first batter on 0-2, walked two, struck out two and gave up a wind-blown two-run homer. Finley went 0-for-1 with a walk and sacrifice bunt in the same game.

The Orioles still fear Finley (.256, 22 steals last season) will become a star, especially in the speed-oriented NL. But they privately believe Harnisch (11-11, 4.34) will remain a .500 pitcher, and snicker at the man-child Schilling, who arrived 40 minutes late for a workout the other day.

The Astros, naturally, are raving about all three players, and all the future holds. "It's not far-fetched to say the Astros of '91 will mirror the Orioles of 1989 or the White Sox of last year," said Watson, the assistant GM.

Who knows? Young players like Harnisch approach the season one day -- and one detail -- at a time. "These white shoes are all right," Harnisch joked. "But it took seven coats to get rid of the black and orange."

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