Ballard's vision for '91 reflects glories of '89


March 22, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Selective memory is a wonderful thing, and Jeff Ballard is trying hard to forget everything that happened last season. The process has taken some work, but it seems to be another spring-training success story.

Get him to reminiscing, and he goes all the way back to that late-September night in '89, the final stop on the magical mystery tour, when the Orioles went to Toronto and everything seemed possible. He thinks about it a lot, but never with any regret. He remembers the fans' screams echoing off the SkyDome roof, the adrenalin rush, the moment that still doesn't seem exactly real.

The losing -- Ballard left in the eighth in a no-decision -- doesn't matter so much as the experience.

"I still remember standing out on the mound, looking for the sign, letting that first pitch go," Ballard was saying the other day. "I had no idea where the ball was going. The umpire called strike one, and the excitement, I'll never forget it."

Ballard pitched wonderfully that night, for about the last time. It isn't only the excitement he remembers, or even the 18 wins he produced that season. It was the command he felt on the mound. It was the sense, reinforced by results, that he was a pitcher who mattered. In the stretch run, going every four days, Ballard, in his own not-exactly-dynamic pitching style, was one to excite the imagination.

And then came last season, and a 2-11 record and eventual exile to the bullpen. Actually, first there came surgery on his left arm. Then came the lockout. Then Ballard as negotiator for the players' union. Then the shortened spring. And then Ballard saying everything was all right, and let's play ball, despite so much evidence against the notion that he was all right. Then the 2-11.

Looking back on it, did he come back too soon? Did he, well, blow it?

"I didn't mess up," Ballard said. "Maybe I didn't understand what it takes to rehab an arm. Nobody explained it to me. But, in April, my first four starts were all good, even if my stuff wasn't that great. I thought I could get by and that I'd get stronger."

Instead, the arm got weaker. He should have known. Frank Robinson, the manager, should have known, too.

You take a guy with 18 wins and a future and surgery on his arm and you tread oh, so cautiously. Any other course wouldn't be prudent. But Robinson said it was up to Ballard, who is, after all, a bright guy, a Stanford grad, to make the decision.

"It's pretty hard to tell yourself to go on the DL when you can throw," Ballard said -- DL being baseballese for the disabled list. "There was pain, but not so much that I couldn't throw. There was one point in May when I considered going on the DL, but at what point do you tell yourself to take the time off when you think you can perform? You have an obligation to help the team. That's the only reason I went out there."

He continued to go out there on a regular basis when he went to the bullpen, hoping for another shot in the starting rotation, a chance that never came. Until now. When the Orioles try to figure how to recapture some of the magic of '89, they begin with Ballard and Bob Milacki and the 32 wins they registered that year as opposed to the seven for which they combined in '90.

And Ballard, anyway, has them excited. He's gotten back his arm strength, and he hasn't forgotten how to pitch.

"He's got this tremendous confidence," says Milacki, who is still struggling to find some himself. "He knows what he wants to do on the mound, and he does it."

You have to have confidence when you don't have overpowering stuff, and Ballard's stuff isn't even what you'd call powering. When he won 18 games, he did it with the fewest strikeouts of any pitcher to win as many games since 1941. He nibbles at the corners and gets people to hit ground balls.

That's what he's doing this spring, to his delight and to the manager's.

"His arm strength is 100 percent better than last year," Robinson said. "What a lot of people don't realize is that arm strength is more important to a guy who throws 80 than to someone like Ben McDonald. Without the arm strength, there isn't as much difference between the change-up and the fastball. Now, I think he's throwing as hard as he ever did."

OK, that's not that hard. And when he's going well, he's willing to joke about it. Ballard knows the race isn't always to the swift, so long as you keep the ball sinking from the knees on down.

"I'd like to be on that plateau again," Ballard says. "It was a lot of fun to be thought of on that level. I'd like to put to rest everyone's doubts. People are so fickle -- the press, fans, coaches, everyone. If '89 is good and '90 is terrible, then they question whether you can even be a starter again.

"I don't see this as a do-or-die year for me. An 18-win season is something people remember for a while. There's probably a window of a few years. But, of course, I'd like it to be now."

If the Orioles are to be contenders again, as so many are suggesting, it almost has to be now. It has to be Ballard and/or Milacki and/or Mike Flanagan filling out a starting rotation. They're all question marks, but at least for this spring Ballard's question mark doesn't take the shape of a surgical scar, and that's progress.

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