Whitt's healthy attitude helps him pass first test

March 15, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

SARASOTA, Fla. -- This isn't exactly the way Ernie Whitt figured it would be. The veteran lefthanded-hitting catcher hardly envisioned himself playing first base while trying to win a job in spring training.

The last thing the Orioles need is another first base candidate, but the lack of more than one healthy one at a time has opened a door for Whitt. "A couple of things have worked in my favor," said Whitt. "This at least has given me a chance to get some at-bats early.

"And it's given them [the Orioles] a chance to see if I'm healthy. I think I've been able to prove that -- what they do with it, I have no idea, but at least they know I'm healthy."

After being released by Atlanta at the end of last season, Whitt was underwhelmed by offers. "There wasn't a whole lot of action out there for a 38-year-old coming off a bad year," he admitted.

Whitt contacted his hometown Tigers without results. Toronto, his former team, and California indicated they'd give him a spring training invite, but the Orioles intrigued him the most.

"The biggest factor was that Frank [Robinson] asked Roland Hemond to see if he could get me," said Whitt. "They contacted me back in October and were very up front about the situation.

"There were no guarantees that they'd keep a third catcher. But I looked at the lineup, which is predominantly righthanded, and figured I'd have a greater opportunity here than anywhere else. Toronto was committed to carrying only two catchers, so the only way I could make the team was if somebody got hurt and that's no way to try and win a job in spring training.

"I felt like I had a lot to offer the Orioles -- they have a young pitching staff, a young catcher in Chris Hoiles, and Bob Melvin, who's been catching in the big leagues for three or four years now. But I also knew there wasn't necessarily a job here waiting for me, that I'd have to create one."

Although he likes the idea of having a third catcher, Robinson won't commit himself to that luxury. It's obvious that Whitt will have to win a spot with his bat, which has provided a single, double, home run and three RBIs in nine at-bats this spring.

"The injuries [to Randy Milligan, David Segui and most recently Glenn Davis] have been a blessing in disguise for Ernie," said Robinson. "We know he can always go back there and catch. What we've got to find out is if he's healthy and if he can still do the job with the bat.

"I don't know what happened to him last year. I know he had a thumb injury, and playing in a different league might have been a factor. But I've always admired him as a guy who didn't hit for a real high average [.253 career in the American League], but got the tough hit, could hit a big home run.

"We had to see down here if he could still swing the bat -- and so far he's done that."

After hitting between 11 and 19 home runs for eight straight years at Toronto, Whitt had to make room for Pat Borders and Greg Myers and was traded to Atlanta after the 1989 season. He admits his National League experience was a disaster.

"I can't make any excuses," he said. "I got off to the worst start I've ever had, then I injured the thumb. I'm sure the new league played a part in it, and I tried to come back too soon from the injury. But I can't use those things as an excuse. I had nobody to blame but myself.

"It was the worst year I've ever had, but I don't think age had anything to do with it. If I did, I wouldn't be here. At the end of last year, my hand was starting to feel good again, the ball felt good coming off the bat."

That, however, wasn't enough for the Braves, who decided there was no room in their rebuilding program for an aging catcher who hit only .172 in 67 games. The Orioles, likewise, made it clear that Whitt would not be able to compete for a significant role. Their primary interest was to see if there was still life in his bat. Beyond that, any contributions he can make to the pitchers and catchers will be considered a bonus.

Whitt has played in all but one of the Orioles' eight exhibition games, but only sparingly. He caught four innings in the Orioles' 8-7 loss to the White Sox last night, his most extensive stint yet behind the plate. His quota of one at-bat, however, remained intact. In his seven games, Whitt has but nine at-bats.

As the injuries to Segui, who played first base last night, Milligan and Davis heal, Whitt realizes he'll get less playing time. "I'd like to be playing more, getting a few more at-bats," he said. "It's tough getting at-bats one at a time, but I understand what they have to do."

Whitt also understands what he has to do -- prove his health and his worth one at-bat at a time.

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