Only chopped stick Traber wants to see is broken Indian bat

Ken Rosenthal

February 03, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

This is almost too much: The first two visiting first basemen in the new downtown ballpark could be former Orioles Eddie Murray and Jim Traber.

Murray will return with the New York Mets for the exhibition walk-through on April 3. Traber could return with Cleveland for the official opener three days later.

"It just figures I would be following him again," joked Traber, the Columbia native who recently signed a Triple A contract with the Indians.

Yes, just when all hope seemed lost, The Whammer-san is back -- and we all know what happened the last time a sumo-sized first baseman returned from Japan.

Traber, 30, probably isn't the next Cecil Fielder, but he's already talking down his competition, switch-hitting rookie Reggie Jefferson.

As anyone in Baltimore and now Japan can attest, no one yammers like The Whammer. Indeed, he's as good a singer as he is a talker, not that he'll perform the Japanese anthem anytime soon.

After compiling back-to-back 92-RBI seasons for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Traber returns a world-class Japan basher, burning every bridge across the Pacific Ocean.

Just listen to our boy on the possibility of Japanese investors buying the Seattle Mariners. It sounds like he's campaigning for theLee Iacocca medal of honor.

"If the Japanese buy a team and try to run it like they do in Japan, they'll be in massive trouble -- they're going to get thrown out on their ears," Traber said from Rochester, where his family is spending the winter.

"They have no idea how to treat players. My team was owned by a massive corporation. The baseball team was in the corner. All they cared about was that the stadium was on the [company] train line.

"They don't care that the locker room is a joke, that the field is brutal. All they care about is that it's another asset. They're not going to put anything into it."

For that type of experience, Traber should never have left Baltimore, where he was a .227 career hitter for the Orioles during parts of four seasons from 1984-89.

Actually, it's a wonder the Orioles didn't re-sign Traber, for they collect first basemen like they're antique miniatures. But that's another story.

The funny thing is, Traber started off happy in Japan, where he finally got a chance to play. But the two-year tour put a strain on his marriage and ended in an ugly contract dispute.

The turning point came last summer, when he contracted a rare stomach disorder and lost -- yes, lost -- 22 pounds. Traber kept playing, but said he was so sick, "I'd be lying on the bench between innings."

Doctors could not determine what was wrong, and after a month, Traber told management he wanted to return to the United States, where his brother is a gastrointestinal specialist at the University of Michigan.

According to Traber, the team refused his request. He then said he was leaving anyway, at which time club officials reversed their decision "because they didn't want to look bad in the press."

Get the feeling our boy didn't major in international relations at Oklahama State?

Traber said the club forced him to sign an agreement specifying he return quickly. He was diagnosed at Michigan as suffering from a severe case of mononucleosis and a mild case of hepatitis.

Anyway, Kintetsu led its division by 2 1/2 games when he left, trailed by a half-game when he returned. Traber, as usual, wanted only to be loved. Instead, the ill will lingered.

"All they thought about was, 'The pennant! The pennant!' " Traber said. "They don't care about the person. You're just like a machine to them.

"Instead of saying, 'Look how much they need him,' it was, 'How could he leave? Look what he did to us.' You can't win over there. The people are so fickle, it's unbelievable."

Through it all, Traber still managed to tie Orestes Destrade for the league lead in RBIs. He batted .302 with 24 home runs his first season, .272 with 29 home runs his second.

Serious numbers, but Kintetsu refused to give him a raise from $450,000 to $1 million -- or half of what another former Oriole, Phil Bradley, made last season with the Tokyo Giants.

And so Traber wound up with Cleveland, where former Orioles coach John Hart is general manager. Besides Jefferson, his competition for a roster spot includes Brook Jacoby and Mike Aldrete.

As usual, Traber is undaunted.He conceded the Indians like Jefferson, then couldn't help but add, "If you look at his numbers, he's been hurt a lot, and he's never hit a lot of home runs."

Such politicking used to drive Orioles like Larry Sheets crazy, but the fact is, this might be Traber's last stand. He wants to devote more time to his wife Joan and sons Trabes and Bo.

"If I go there and don't make the team, I'll see what happens next year with expansion," Traber said. "But if I don't see anything that looks really good, it may just be time to give the game up."

Say it ain't so, Whammer.

Be there Opening Day.

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