SARASOTA, Fla. -- John Oates made somewhat of a departure yesterday from the guidelines spelled out in the managerial handbook.
On the eve of the exhibition season, the Orioles manager said that winning during the preseason is a priority. Not at any cost, and not by keeping players on the field longer than normal, but with an emphasis on building momentum heading into the season.
"When I managed in the minor leagues, I did it with a dual purpose," said Oates. "My primary job was to get players ready for the major leagues, but I also felt an obligation to the people who owned and supported the team to win as many games as possible.
"There's also a dual purpose in spring training," Oates said before the Orioles departed for St. Petersburg, where they face the St. Louis Cardinals in their first exhibition of the season this afternoon. "The No. 1 responsibility naturally is to prepare the players for the championship season.
"But it's also important for us to win as often as we can to develop the right attitude. I'd like to start some momentum, to start feeling good about ourselves right now."
The importance of winning immediately, even in supposedly meaningless games, is tied directly to the team's fortunes in recent years.
The Orioles have had a winning regular-season record once (1989) in the past six years. They have not had a winning preseason since 1984. Their 14-15 exhibition record in 1989 gave some indication that the team had improved; the year before, the team lost 19 of 28 preseason games and 107 of 162 regular-season games.
Winning in Florida does not necessarily translate into victories up North. But after losing 180 games the past two seasons, the Orioles have to prove to themselves that they can be competitive.
"I'll manage to win every game," Oates said, "but not at the expense of getting ready for the season. Early [in the exhibition season], you'll see some guys hit and pitch in situations where they wouldn't during the regular season.
"That's all part of finding out who can do what. Everybody will get to play in those early games."
What happens in the final 20 games figures to be most important to Oates. "I haven't found out anything yet. I haven't made any decisions yet," he said. "But I've seen some things that I like.
"I can see that Darrell Sherman is as quick as a cat," Oates said of the outfielder acquired in the Rule V draft from the San Diego Padres. "I'm happy about the overall condition of the club, and the pitchers have thrown well."
The pitcher who has attracted the most attention from Oates has been veteran Rick Sutcliffe. He and left-hander Mike Flanagan pitched two scoreless innings each in yesterday's intrasquad game.
"I was anxious to see Rick throw," said Oates. "To me, it seems like he's in excellent shape, but you really don't know until you see him throw the ball.
"He's taken part in every drill, he's even run extra on his own, and he hasn't been in the training room once," Oates said.
Among the position players, Sherman is the player about whom Oates needs to learn the most, because of his status. If the Orioles don't keep him on their 25-man roster, he must be offered back to the Padres at half of the $50,000 drafting price.
Sherman has not played above Double-A, and, barring wholesale moves, it's difficult to see him staying with the Orioles.
In the trade that sent Craig Worthington to San Diego, the Orioles obtained outfielder Steve Martin. Martin and Sherman were the center fielders at the top of the San Diego minor-league system last year. Losing both practically guarantees the Padres would make a claim on Sherman, whose strongest asset is that he is a natural leadoff hitter, something the Orioles desperately need.
The No. 1 spot in the batting order figures to provide the most competition during preseason play. In the first three exhibition games, Oates will use three different hitters in that role -- and Brady Anderson won't be one of them.
That, however, is due to circumstances more than anything else. Anderson is being held out of the first two exhibitions because of a slightly sprained right ankle.
Starting today, questions about the Orioles will begin to be answered. And Oates will begin making his decisions.