Ex-Oriole Ballard hopes comeback is in Cards

March 08, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?"

-- Bruce Springsteen, The River

... ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jeff Ballard takes it as a matter of faith that his pitching arm is healthy and his career is on the mend, but he knows deep down that reality could be a long, hot summer in Louisville.

The St. Louis Cardinals were the only team to offer him an invitation to spring training, and they do not offer him much hope of winning a place on manager Joe Torre's 11-man pitching staff. Ballard has to face the fact that the baseball world has all but forgotten the outstanding 1989 performance that helped keep hope alive through the two difficult seasons that followed.

It was fun while it lasted. He was the winningest pitcher on the most surprising team of the 1980s. He went 18-8 and established himself as one of the premier left-handers in the American League. But two elbow operations and a couple of other #F setbacks later, the Orioles turned him loose in a very soft free-agent market.

The headlines have got to haunt him. The average major-league salary has surpassed $1 million per year. Former teammate Gregg Olson, who also broke through in 1989, recently signed a two-year deal worth $3.75 million. If he had won 18 games last season instead of three years ago, he could have gone to salary arbitration and become a multimillionaire. Instead, he will be fortunate to make the minimum major-league salary this year.

"I don't dwell on the money," he said. "After the last two years, I'm just trying to stick around. I would have taken anything to play this year. That's the frustrating part -- being a front-line pitcher, being a star and then scrambling to find a job two years later. The most asked question is, what does it feel like to be the Opening Day starter one year and looking for a job the next. It's frustrating, going from team to team, trying to convince people you can still pitch. That has nothing to do with money."

Enter the Cardinals, who might need an extra middle reliever and might need a fifth starter, but probably won't turn to Ballard right away. He would have to beat out promising Rheal Cormier to become the 11th man on an expanded pitching staff, or else start the season with the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds.

"I'm not saying he won't make the club, but some things have to fall in place for him to do that," said Torre. "That's not to say that if he gets sent out, he won't be back in a month or so.

"We have to decide if we're going to keep Cormier to pitch once in awhile in relief up here, or keep a Ballard or [Paul] Kilgus. If we keep a starter, it'll probably be Cormier as opposed to Ballard. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm going to take 11 pitchers."

This is not your typical manager talk, not on the first weekend of the exhibition season. This is the time when everybody is supposed to have a chance, which is why Torre's guarded comments read more like a waiver notice.

"When we get down to picking the 11 people we'll take north, we're going to take the best 11 in the roles we need to have filled," pitching coach Joe Coleman said. "We know that Jeff has had success in the big leagues. If he gets back to where he was, he's going to be very competitive. But we're sitting with a lot of people who had success for us last year, and you can't discount that."

Ballard has spent the past two years trying to rediscover the magic touch that made him so successful in 1989, but he has to remember that he didn't do it alone. The Orioles supported him with an average of nearly six runs per game. If they had done the same in 1991, he would be coming back from a winning season and, no doubt, looking forward to being the Opening Day starter for the second year running.

Instead, he suffered from a decided lack of offensive support and had dropped to 6-11 by the time the club optioned him along with Jeff Robinson and Kilgus to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings roster on July 30.

"There are a lot of ifs and buts," Ballard said. "I don't expect to get 5.8 runs a game, but I don't expect to get one or two either. The 1989 season was a perfect year for me and the Orioles. It was a perfect year for a lot of people. I got some run support and I made some pitches and I got a lot of confidence. I carried that momentum all year.

"The mental part of it is the really important part. I had a terrible '90 and when things went south in '91, it really broke me down. I didn't have a lot of positive signs. In '89, I went out there and thought I was going to win. By '91, I was just trying to get a quality start."

It doesn't take a geophysics major (which Ballard was at Stanford) to know that he has dug a rather large hole for himself.

The 1990 season was a complete write-off. Ballard underwent surgery twice to repair his elbow, then pushed himself back into action too soon. He pitched with a sore arm all year and it showed.

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