Robinson hurting for healthy season

April 12, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

The curse of the freak injury visited Jeff Robinson for the first time in the summer of 1989. It has been with him, in one form or another, ever since.

"I was never hurt in my entire career [before then]," the new Orioles pitcher was saying this week.

In 1989, Robinson's third season with the Detroit Tigers, he was traveling in fast company. He had a two-year record of 22-12, and comparisons to a former Detroit phenom, name of Mark Fidrych, were inevitable.

By the end of that season, Detroit fans wondered if Robinson would be linked with the injury-ravaged Fidrych for another reason.

The curse appeared over Robinson's shoulder one day late in the season in Chicago. On what seemed a routine pitch, the 6-foot-6, 235-pounder suffered an excruciating rib injury. The muscles tore away from his left rib cage. The memory of that moment has lingered with Robinson long after the pain subsided.

"It was a severe injury," Robinson said. "It hurt to go to the bathroom, it hurt that bad.

"Once it healed, I had no problem with the injury itself. Yet I wasn't able to get my mechanics back to where they were before. Subconsciously, I was afraid it would happen again."

A year later, in 1990, Robinson broke down again. This time it was a stress fracture in his right forearm. The medical opinion was that it happened as a result of wear and tear over a period of time. His season was finished after 145 innings and 10 wins.

Here was a young athlete willing to pitch through pain, but paying the price because he didn't know when to say when. The reputation he brought to the Orioles with his Jan. 12 trade for Mickey Tettleton was one of fragile promise. It is a reputation he wants to shake this season.

"Every injury I've had has been a freak thing," said Robinson, 29. "As a starting pitcher, you set out every season to throw 200 innings. I haven't been able to do that. But right now I have confidence in my body."

Robinson, who pitched a career-high 172 innings in his 13-win campaign of 1988, will throw his first official innings as an Oriole on Sunday in Texas. He will be matched against the Rangers' Nolan Ryan.

Because Robinson struggled mightily through his first Orioles' spring training, his debut this weekend is all the more interesting. It was with that Florida performance in mind that Orioles fans added insult to Robinson's injury history on Opening Day with a few boos during player introductions.

Scattered though they were, the boos obviously stung Robinson.

"In June, when it's completely different, I'll look back at those people and say, 'You were the ones . . .' "

Robinson's spring training numbers were ugly, though. In six games and 21 1/3 innings, he was roughed up for 34 hits, 29 runs (18 earned) and four homers. He was 0-3 with a 7.59 earned run average. His 13 walks were a staff high.

"I was giving up hits and runs," he said. "It wasn't a situation where I'd say it was no big deal. I'd like to have been better. But was I concerned? No, I wasn't. I knew I was getting to the place I needed to be.

"People put a lot of emphasis on spring training, but it doesn't count. What counts is what happens on Opening Day and beyond."

Nevertheless, being with a new team, Robinson wasn't sure how the Orioles viewed his spring. Before his last outing, he approached manager Frank Robinson and asked, "Are you worried about me?"

"He said, 'No. I don't want to see you get hit around, but you have a proven track record.' "

The pitcher's poor numbers in spring were largely due to poor mechanics, said pitching coach Al Jackson.

"He wasn't smooth enough," Jackson said. "He has quite a bit of motion [in his delivery], and he wasn't going in the right direction. He wasn't going toward home. We watched some film of him in 1988, and we got him to control his body, especially his upper body, better. That got his control back."

Another reason for the high walk count, Jackson said, was that Robinson was using his forkball too much too early in camp. "It got better at the end," Jackson said.

For now, Robinson, with a career record of 36-26, has the fourth spot in the starting rotation. That's where he wants to be. "In my eyes, the best way I can help this team is in the rotation," he said. "I know I'm capable of winning a lot of games with this team because we do have good defense and the offense can explode."

The trade to Baltimore was one he welcomed.

"I liked coming here as a visiting player," he said. "I liked the atmosphere, the way they promoted the team. I always felt the excitement of baseball here.

"I had a great time in Detroit my four years there. We won the AL East my rookie year. But you can't replace those experiences going into the middle of the year when you're on the mound, and your team is even or a game back [in the standings]."

Perhaps most of all, Robinson hopes he left the curse of the freak injury behind in Detroit.

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