From top, Devereaux may belong in middle


March 12, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Mike Devereaux is a millionaire now. He is an established player who may be on the brink of a breakthrough season. Life is pretty darn good, and if Devo, as he's known, weren't Devo, he might be tempted to get a big head.

Actually, it was a near thing, as Devereaux tells it.

"I was back home in Wyoming for the first time in years during the off-season," he says. "I spent every day going to schools, talking to kids. They'll wear you out.

"One day, I was talking to this kindergarten class. I gave my speech and then I asked the kids if they had any questions. So this one kid raises his hand and asks, 'Why is your nose so big?' And the kid next to him says, 'Yeah, that's a good question.' "

Devereaux, telling his story from the comfort of the Orioles' clubhouse, laughs at himself. Life is pretty darn good.

And it just might get better as the Orioles begin the process of re-imagining Mike Devereaux.

They have to. They've had him batting leadoff because he was the best they had, and he wasn't very good. Well, actually he was very good; he was just very good at something else.

While batting leadoff last season, all he did was hit 19 homers and 27 doubles and 10 triples. That's more extra-base hits -- 56, if I remember my third-grade math -- than any Oriole in the past 12 seasons whose name wasn't Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray.

Eddie Murray doesn't bat leadoff and Cal Ripken doesn't bat leadoff, and it's fairly clear that Devereaux, who had 59 RBI in the No. 1 hole, might drive in a lot more batting in the No. 5 or No. 6 slot.

"I'm probably better there," he says, and then says he doesn't want to get into it. "If I say I'd rather bat fifth and they put me in the leadoff spot, then I'm saying I don't want to bat leadoff. I want to bat wherever they want me to."

As a leadoff man, he doesn't walk enough (47 times). He strikes out too much (115 times). His on-base percentage, of .313, was unspectacular. But, batting first, he was second on the club with 20 game-tying and go-ahead RBI. Which is fairly spectacular.

This point is not lost on John Oates, who has used four leadoff batters this spring, including Devereaux.

"It's wide-open," Oates says.

Brady Anderson has the best legs in camp, which would be great if he were a Rockette. He also has the best sideburns, not so great if you're a Rockette. And he has, at age 28 and therefore no longer a phenom, a lifetime .219 batting average.

Still, because Anderson can run and because he is such an intriguing talent, Oates wants him batting leadoff. So did Frank Robinson. So did Joe Morgan, when Anderson was in the Red Sox organization.

My guess is Anderson will get another chance because the other candidates -- Luis Mercedes and Darrell Sherman -- probably won't make the team. Devereaux isn't letting himself think that way.

After last season, his third in the big leagues, Devereaux went to instructional camp to work on his bunting and his selectivity at the plate. And he definitely plans to steal more bases than the 16 he managed last year.

"All that's important if you bat leadoff," he says. "But it's important if you bat fifth, too. You still use the same skills. I'm still working on not swinging at bad pitches. I know the great hitters walk a lot.

"I'm an aggressive hitter, but you can be aggressive and still swing at your pitch. Wherever I'm batting in the lineup, I want my on-base percentage to go up."

Certainly, his stock is rising. An excellent defensive player, Devereaux was fourth among center fielders in home runs. He has improved each season, and Devereaux, for one, doesn't see why that improvement shouldn't continue.

"This is the time I have to prove myself," he says. "If I can stay healthy, stay strong, it's a time when I can move up the ladder.

"There is a lot of opportunity for me, and there's a lot of money to make. You look at it, and it's not like it's so outrageous. It's there. It's in sight."

Not that everyone sees it that way. Chito Martinez is standing next to Devereaux and has a few predictions of his own.

"I'm going to hit for a higher average, hit more home runs, drive in more runs," Martinez is saying as Devereaux looks on. "The only thing he's going to have more of than me is strikeouts."

Devereaux laughs. It's the kind of ribbing that's standard in clubhouses, especially in springtime when no one has yet had to worry about that first slump.

"That's your story, I guess," Devereaux says.

In this case, Devereaux is the story. We just don't know how it's going to begin -- from the top of the lineup, or from somewhere in the middle.

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