SARASOTA, Fla. -- The burden of proof is back on Dwight
Evans, whose medical history made him something of a mystery a year ago and threatens to do so again this spring.
Flash back to the spring of 1991, when he was coming off his final season with the Boston Red Sox and had not played an inning in the outfield in something like 18 months. Having signed with the Orioles as a free agent, he came to Twin Lakes Park to prove that his injured back was sound enough to carry him around right field, and showed doubting manager Frank Robinson that he was ready to play in the season opener.
Flash forward to the first week of 1992 full-squad workouts, and you will find Evans a year older -- he's 40 -- and just as determined to prove he is healthy enough to contribute. You also will find a manager with some doubts, though John Oates is not as quick to turn them into headlines.
Evans made good on his promise to return to the outfield, but a persistent Achilles' injury kept him from staying there all season. Now, the Achilles' injury is behind him and the back problem is under control, but there was that calf strain the first week of workouts, and the wondering began anew.
"I really don't think that when you get to the point where he is, you can ever be 100 percent sure that he'll be able to toe the line every time you ask him to," Oates said, "but I think he played the outfield more than we had any right to hope, even with the Achilles' problem."
Evans isn't ready to concede anything like that. On the threshold of his 20th full season in the major leagues, he continues to work feverishly at the game, hoping for one last run at a World Series ring.
The calf injury apparently was minor. He is back on full workout schedule, but the health issue never will be far away. Oates said as much yesterday, when he expressed how much he wants Evans to be healthy at the start of the season.
"I think it's very important that he be healthy at the beginning," Oates said. "A healthy Dwight Evans can help us."
This is where the situation becomes delicate. If Evans is not ready to play Opening Day, will he still have a place on the club's major-league roster? That is a question that Oates and Orioles front-office types are not ready to answer, and hope they do not have to.
The outfield is crowded, with Chito Martinez expected to get most of the playing time in right field. The designated hitter spot will be tight until the club can move surplus first baseman Randy Milligan. Oates sees Evans as a part-time DH, part-time outfielder and a full-time pinch-hit specialist, but the manager needs to know that he can turn to Evans with some degree of regularity.
"I think that kind of role would be a real possibility on this ballclub," Oates said. "We only have two right-handed hitting outfielders, and if they are both in the game, you don't have anyone to come off the bench."
Evans is all right with the concept. He moved around the lineup last year and batted .270 despite the Achilles' problem. It was not a typical Evans year (six homers, 38 RBI in 270 at-bats), but he got progressively more comfortable with his place in Oates' system.
That didn't happen overnight. The club struggled from start to finish, and Evans said there were times when he had to wonder whether signing with the Orioles was the right thing to do. Only twice in his 18 seasons with the Red Sox did the club finish below .500, and never did they win fewer than 78 games. The Orioles finished 67-95 last year and never were a factor in the American League East.
"We were playing so poorly, and I'd never been on a team that had done so poorly," he said. "I was down, but it was because I was part of the reason."
He recognizes that his physical condition is going to be a matter of concern for the rest of his career, but he isn't bracing for another breakdown.
"I really had a problem [with the Achilles'] last year," he said. "I was concerned. Hopefully, I can stay away from that. We'll see what happens. I'm an optimist, so I'm not looking for bad things to happen."
On the contrary, he is looking for good things to happen -- to himself and to the team. The Orioles have retooled for 1992, and they have a chance to improve on last year's sixth-place finish. First baseman Glenn Davis is back from a freak neck injury. Cal Ripken is back to build on the best season of his career. Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis have been brought in to shore up a weak pitching staff.
"I have a better feeling," Evans said. "I'm excited about this club. I like the players they brought in. Is it guaranteed? No. Nothing is guaranteed. Not for us, and not for Toronto or Boston.
"I think this club can win. Are we legitimate contenders at this point? No. But neither were the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins at this point last year. Anything can happen."