Only Milacki's uniform comes up short in debut

Ken Rosenthal

April 12, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

HAGERSTOWN -- His uniform pants were absurdly short. Another major-league refugee might have howled at the indignity, but Bob Milacki stood in the cramped Double A clubhouse and pointed to his exposed socks. He couldn't suppress a giggle.

Milacki, 26, did not require an explanation. He spent five seasons in the minors before finally joining the Orioles in September 1988. One would think he'd be crushed to return to this level, especially when it is not entirely of his own making. But his visit is only temporary.

The Orioles want him to retrace his steps, so last night he again put on the uniform he wore for parts of his first three pro seasons, back when Hagerstown was the team's Single A affiliate. Perhaps it was a good sign the pants didn't fit.

Two days after an extensive bullpen workout, four days after his last exhibition start, Milacki pitched five shutout innings in the Suns' 9-1 victory over Williamsport. Observing closely from behind home plate, Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson couldn't help but be impressed.

Jackson needs a fifth starter by next weekend, and Milacki might be his man. The 6-foot-4 righthander seems to be nearing the end of a journey typical of his arduous career. Strangely enough, the source of his latest troubles might have been his breakthrough 1989 campaign.

Milacki would never admit as much, and neither would the Orioles, but more on that in a moment. Last night he allowed only one hit, struck out eight and walked two. His line was largely irrelevant -- "he had those kids overmatched," Jackson said. But he was in control.

"I was just out there having fun -- I'm not used to striking out a lot of guys," Milacki joked. "Some of them were blatantly setting themselves up for pitches. They'd overswing on fastballs, setting themselves up for changeups. I was trying not to throw too many."

The last time he pitched here was 1986. He still visits friends in the area. This is the place where he bought his dog. Yet, he was upset by his demotion, however brief it might be. Last year, he started for the Orioles on Opening Day.

It's not the inconvenience that bothers Milacki -- he commutes the 75 miles from Baltimore, and continues to earn his $235,000 salary. The point is, he might never be here if the Orioles hadn't insisted he quicken his delivery this spring, the better to hold on runners.

Milacki complied, but as he adjusted, his velocity and control suffered. He finished the spring 0-2 with a 6.48 ERA. "Maybe I would have done things different if I knew I was competing for a job," he said.

Jackson in turn claimed "even if you're working on something, you've still got to compete." But even before this spring, the Orioles' handling of Milacki was open to debate. Frankly, his demotion is the least of it.

Milacki has a weak rotator cuff, and at one point early in his career, former Orioles farm director Tom Giordano wanted to release him. It didn't happen, and Milacki worked hard to develop an 89-mph fastball. Even today, he performs special exercises to keep his shoulder strong.

Before 1988 he had never pitched more than 148 innings in a season, but that year he threw 264, advancing from Double A to the majors. The following year he worked 243 innings for the Orioles, the highest total by an American League rookie in 12 years.

According to the Elias Baseball Analyst, only 10 pitchers since 1976 have worked at least 225 innings in their rookie seasons. None equaled or surpassed their rookie totals in their second year; the group fell short by an average of 98 innings.

Guess what? Milacki missed a month with shoulder trouble after his velocity dropped to 82 mph last July. He finished 5-8 with a 4.46 ERA in 135 innings. Meanwhile, the Orioles' other '89 workhorse, Jeff Ballard, struggled all season after undergoing elbow surgery.

Manager Frank Robinson normally tries to handle pitchers with care, but in '89 he was trying to win a pennant. Even then, Milacki and Ballard might have come back strong if the owners' lockout hadn't shortened spring training.

To this day, Milacki insists his problem wasn't his arm, but his mechanics. Whatever, Jackson believes he turned the corner in the bullpen Tuesday. "I looked off and heard something scratch the ground," Jackson said. "I thought he tripped. But he had dragged his back leg."

That was a good sign, for it meant Milacki was driving toward the plate. He'll make at least one more start for Hagerstown. It's possible Ben McDonald will beat him into the rotation if Mike Flanagan doesn't first. But chances are, Milacki will get his old uniform pants back.

It would be only fitting, don't you think?

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