Evans' nagging questions have optimistic answers


March 31, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Dwight Evans is the subject of s many burbling, little mysteries this spring that he ought to wear a question mark on the back of his uniform. How is his back? His knee? Can he still play in the outfield? If so, how many games in 1991? Ten? Eighty? Can he still hit? Is he comfortable as an Oriole after 18 years in Boston? Does he still want to play this game?

You say you want answers, not questions? I have answers. The bone spur in his back feels fine. At least he says it does. His knee, which kept him in the trainer's room through much of the first month of camp -- minor surgery was performed last winter -- doesn't seem to be bothering him now. That's the big issue at age 39: If, not when, the little nags go away. Something big could pop tomorrow, of course, but Evans appears to be in crackling-good shape. He should be. He works hard at it.

You say you want answers? I have answers. Evans will play in the outfield this season. He won't play every game -- that was never the idea -- but 50, maybe even 70 -- bet it. You can see it coming. He has been out there quite a bit this last week, and the news is good. It isn't a reach. It just isn't. "He can play the outfield for me," Frank Robinson said. "No doubt about it."

No, he won't be the same elegant outfielder who won eight Gold Gloves in Boston, certainly won't have the same range. But his arm is still strong, and he can make the moves in his sleep. He will be as competent as anyone the Orioles use out there.

They won't use him too often because his bat is what they most covet, and they want to protect him, but it will be to their advantage when they do put him out there. They can use Randy Milligan at DH and Brady Anderson or Joe Orsulak in left. Or they can keep Milligan in left and use Sam Horn at DH. The point is there are more options when Evans isn't just the DH.

Should we be surprised that Evans, after the initial knee scare, appears to be holding up? Maybe a little, but only a little. See, the Red Sox didn't just release him because they thought he no longer could stand the rigors of the position, or that his bat had dried up. He was still useful enough last year. He had 29 RBI that either tied or won games. His 13 home runs were more than all but four Orioles. He is a marvel who is still in terrific shape near 40.

So why did the Sox dump him? The truth was that Evans and manager Joe Morgan were not best buddies. A couple of years ago the Sox kept another older player, Bill Buckner, who wasn't as productive as Evans was last year. Evans' release was personalities as much as baseball. Morgan saw Evans as something of a subversive, skeptical of the manager's ways. That Evans had a sore back just made it easier. It didn't have to mean he was finished.

Oh, and about that back: The Orioles are confident it will hold up. That isn't breaking news. Their medical reports have been positive from the beginning. That doesn't mean Evans won't turn up lame tomorrow. At 39, he is always one awkward swing or one wrong step away from the end of his career. But we're talking percentages here, and they favor the Orioles.

You say you want answers? I have answers. Evans should fare just fine at the plate. It isn't unreasonable to expect 15 homers and 70 RBI, maybe even a little more. Is that newsworthy? Yes. It is true that he has never been unproductive, but let's face it, the man isn't a babe, and all players do ultimately cross that line into impotence, some suddenly, some gradually. The news is that Evans isn't there yet.

He has looked downright handy with his bat in Florida, has a .333 average, a six-game hitting streak, a home run. Sure, it's just the spring, but you're looking for slowing reactions, for pitchers fooling him, overpowering him. It just isn't happening. He looks the same at the plate as he has the last 18 years. That's pretty useful.

The wrong thing to do would be to expect too much, of course. His production has indeed dropped each of the last three years. But it would also be wrong to expect too little. Evans is something of an anomaly. He didn't have a 30-homer season until he was 30, didn't reach his offensive peak until 35. Sure, it is always possible he will suddenly reach the end, just crash out. But don't count on it this year.

You say you want answers? I have answers. He doesn't find it particularly disconcerting to wake up not being a member of the Red Sox for the first time since Spiro Agnew was vice president. He says he isn't even thinking about it. Maybe that rings false -- he did play 2,500 games in Boston. But they released him, remember, so he isn't too homesick. And, anyway, how difficult can it be to wear a different-colored uniform? Don't make too much of it.

He says he is "here to play baseball," that it make take him a little while to get into baseball shape, but that the season is "a long journey," and the idea of playing some games in the outfield -- he was just a DH last year -- has him all jazzed up. A report on ESPN said he was having second thoughts about continuing his career in Baltimore. He says it's not true. Just plain wrong. You want the answer? There it is.

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