Ballard hopes his last impression is a lasting one for Orioles

October 03, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- He could be enjoying the pristine water and clear air in his home state of Montana, or day-tripping around various golf courses.

Instead Jeff Ballard, two years removed from being the ace of the Orioles staff, will be pitching against the New York Yankees tonight. It is an appearance that could be significant as far as Ballard's career with the Orioles is concerned.

The 28-year-old lefthander realizes he no longer is a central figure in the Orioles' plans. He cannot be written off as a candidate for next year's starting rotation, but neither is he a possibility for any of the top three spots.

After compiling a 6-11 record, with a 5.34 earned run average earlier in the year, Ballard was dispatched to Rochester July 30. His return a month ago was more of a formality than a promotion.

Ballard undoubtedly could have had the last month off with pay while the Orioles were testing younger arms, but he didn't want it that way. "I'd rather be here than home," said Ballard.

"I told Roland [general manager Roland Hemond] that I still wanted to throw for the final month. I haven't had a September off since 1986. It meant a lot for me to come back -- regardless of how much I pitched.

"It's [been] frustrating not getting the ball [every fifth day], or being one of the guys who gets up when the [bullpen] phone rings. That part of it has been kind of tough."

It was barely more than two years ago, Sept. 30, 1989, that Ballard pitched in the game of his life -- perhaps the most suspenseful, dramatic and meaningful game the Orioles have played in the last eight years. He left that game in Toronto with a 1-0 lead with one out in the eighth inning. The Orioles eventually lost in 11 innings and were eliminated from the division race the next day in the next-to-last game of the season.

"I think back to it a lot," Ballard said of his brush with fame. "I tell stories about it. There were a lot of emotions in that game -- it's something I'll always have that no one can take away.

"That was probably as intense and emotional as you can ever feel as an individual. It was as emotional for the team and for me as an individual as any World Series game. It meant as much as a World Series to us."

Ballard was an 18-game winner that year, but that game signaled a dramatic turn for him. Two elbow operations and a labor dispute preceded a 2-11 season in 1990 and this year he was unceremoniously shipped back to the minor leagues.

And when he returned, there were subtle reminders that things had changed. His locker had been assigned to Arthur Rhodes, a rookie lefthander who is looking for his first major-league win after eight starts. Ballard dresses at Memorial Stadium in makeshift portable quarters reserved for September callups.

Ballard understands, but isn't ready to accept that the position of his locker in the clubhouse is indicative of his future, even though he admits to being unsure about what is in store. "It's a lot different coming back, you don't feel as big a part of the team -- you don't feel like you're any part of the team. It's the first time in my whole career that I haven't been one of the main focuses of my team."

Still, even though he knows the odds might not be stacked in his favor, Ballard's preference is to stay with his original team. "I'd rather play here than anywhere," he said. "But I don't want to play here and be in Rochester. I don't feel I'm ready to be shipped back down.

"I like it here, I have a house here, I was drafted by this team -- and that means something. But I'm pretty sure they don't have plans for me here next year. They've indicated they would look to try and move [trade] me -- to see what is out there."

Whatever course of action the Orioles decide on, Ballard is convinced of one thing -- that he will pitch somewhere next year. "I personally don't think I'll have a problem getting a job," he said. "Out of 26 teams, at least one can definitely use a lefthanded pitcher with experience -- either in a starting or relief role."

Ballard's numbers at Rochester were modest -- 3-3 with a 4.41 earned run average. In seven starts he had three complete games, only one less than team leader Israel Sanchez.

"It wasn't tough to play [at Rochester], to put the uniform on," said Ballard. "I love to play the game -- but the other stuff was difficult."

Getting readjusted to what he called the "minor-league cuisine" was a problem. "It's hard to eat very well, to take care of yourself," said Ballard, citing the difference between the major and minor leagues.

"You don't have things at your fingertips -- things you take for granted here. Everything you can compare is brutal -- except when the game starts."

Ballard is getting one more start this year primarily because manager John Oates wanted to pitch a lefthander in Yankee Stadium -- and set up his rotation for the last three games at home this weekend.

One game will not turn around Ballard's season. He understands that. Neither will it necessarily alter the Orioles' plans for the offseason. He also realizes that.

But it is one more chance. He is still wearing an Orioles' uniform.

"A last impression can stay with you a long time," said Oates. "I'm hoping he can go out and give us five or six strong innings -- for our sake and for his."

For Jeff Ballard tonight's game is not a trial. That came a long time ago. Just call it another chance to leave a good impression.

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