FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Larry Sheets came to camp with the Baltimore Orioles looking for a chance to stay in the major leagues. So did 38-year-old catcher Ernie Whitt. But so far, only one thing is certain.
One of them won't be here much longer.
Manager Frank Robinson said yesterday that he will not carry both of them on the 25-man regular-season roster, which means that at least one is playing on borrowed time.
"There will not be space for both of them," Robinson said, "but whether we will make a decision in a few days or wait until the last minute, I don't know."
Robinson insists the decision has not been made yet, but there are signs that the club is leaning toward Whitt, whose experience behind the plate is valued even though he is not expected to play more than a few games there.
"If the playing time I've gotten is any indication, it doesn't look too positive for me," said Sheets, who has the fewest at-bats of any veteran Oriole except Dwight Evans.
Sheets feels that his chances of making the club depend on more than at-bats, even though it seems obvious that playing time in the outfield will be scarce.
"The thing I wonder about is, do they consider me an outfielder?" Sheets said. "The last time I was here, they didn't. Last year, I gained a lot of confidence playing in the outfield in Detroit, but if I'm not an outfielder, I don't fit here because they have so many people who can do the same things."
Therein lies the bad news. The Orioles still don't consider Sheets an outfielder. Robinson is looking for a left-handed pinch hitter who can give him a little power off the bench. There already are rostered outfielders who'll be complaining about their playing time during the regular season.
Sheets has to prove that he can produce in a part-time role, so his limited playing time might be a test in itself.
"He's gotten some at-bats," Robinson said. "I think he's gotten a significant number of at-bats. He might not have as many as other people, but that's not his role. I understand that he wants to get some at-bats, but if he makes the team, this is the way he is going to be used."
Whitt has not had significantly more playing time. He has appeared in more games, but has only one more plate appearance that Sheets. The difference is what he has done with his opportunities. While Sheets has batted .211 with only one extra-base hit (a double), Whitt is batting .400 with three home runs and seven RBI.
"Ernie has done a good job so far," Robinson said. "What we wanted to find out is whether his thumb was OK. It looks like it is."
None of this bodes well for Sheets, who passed up a chance to play in Japan this year because he thought there would be interest in him on the free-agent market. There wasn't, so he accepted a non-roster invitation to camp with the Orioles, the team he left under unhappy circumstances after the 1989 season.
"They [the Japanese club] wanted an answer in October," Sheets said. "After the year I had last year, I couldn't give them an answer. I thought there was still a place for me in the major leagues. It's tough, because I don't know if I'll ever have another at-bat in the major leagues.
"When you look at it that way, maybe I made the wrong decision. Only time will tell."
Time is running short. Opening Day is nine days away. Sheets doesn't know what he'll do if he doesn't make the club. He won't say whether he'll go back to the minor leagues to wait for a turn. He doesn't want to think about that yet.
"It's not worrying me," he said. "If I make the club, I make the club. If I don't, I don't. I've spent six years in the major leagues. I've been smart with my money. But I want to play."
If not here, there is always the possibility that another club will need a 31-year-old outfielder who four seasons ago hit .316 with 31 home runs and 94 RBI.
"There have been situations where people signed late with a team," Sheets said, a hint of fatalism in his voice. "People may be interested. Sometimes, young players don't pan out and that opens up spots that didn't used to be there."
It could even happen here, but Sheets is preparing for the worst. Even he knows a long shot when he sees one.