Orioles' Mills lifts career out of garbage can Throwing at them was part of growth

March 15, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Alan Mills knows what it's like to ride baseball's roller coaster. His six-year career has taken more turns, and at times been as exciting as a trip down the Jones Falls Expressway.

Twice he was a first-round draft pick, by the Boston Red Sox in January 1986 and by the California Angels in June of the same year. He was involved in what bordered on an illegal deal less than a year after he signed his first contract.

It took him four years to get out of Single-A ball, but when he left, it was on the express train to the big leagues. Now he is trying, for the third year, to prove he belongs.

The 25-year-old right-hander came to the Orioles from the New York Yankees in a curious transaction two weeks ago. He was involved in an exchange of players designated for assignment, with the Orioles eventually sending Francisco de la Rosa, plus a yet-to-be-named minor-leaguer, to the Yankees.

So far Mills has done nothing to indicate he isn't a bona fide major-league candidate. That, however, doesn't mean he won't have to return to Triple-A, where he has spent parts of the past two years.

If he does, it will just be the latest, and probably last, roadblock, since he has only one option remaining.

"He is a dedicated, hard-working young man with a live arm that has a lot of resilience," said Wally Moon, the Orioles minor-league hitting instructor and one of Mills' early Single-A managers. "He has the kind of arm you don't see very often. When you have a chance to get one like that, you take it."

Quiet, almost shy, by nature, Mills has impressed everyone with whom he has come in contact -- from managers at the lowest level of the minor leagues to Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman.

His determination to succeed is perhaps best revealed by a humorous story from 1988 when he was with Prince William (Va.) in the Single-A Carolina League. Gene Tenace, now a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays, but then Moon's successor with the Yankees' farm club, remembers it as though it happened yesterday.

"I brought him into a game out of the bullpen one night, and he had a pretty shoddy outing," Tenace said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it obviously affected him personally.

"If I had known, I would have let him get some work in the bullpen [after Mills came out of the game]. But I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary."

About 1 a.m. Tenace got a call from the local police department and was shocked to find out that Mills was in custody -- until he heard the reason. "Evidently he went home and couldn't sleep," said Tenace, "so he took some baseballs over to a park or a school where they had a baseball diamond. He was throwing them at a garbage can he had put on home plate.

"Somebody called and complained that he was disturbing the peace. When they [the police] realized he was on the team, they let him go and there were no charges."

The episode left an impression on Tenace that lasts to this day. "From that point on, I had a lot of respect for that kid," said Tenace. "I still have a lot of feeling for him.

"It showed me a lot -- he was very disappointed and he was so determined to fine-tune himself that he was out throwing baseballs in the middle of the night."

When Tenace's story was related to him, Mills broke into a sheepish grin. "That was an ugly night," he said, laughing at the memory. "Actually it started out good -- I got the first two pitches over for strikes.

"But then I gave up a home run and I don't think I got anybody out. If I did, it wasn't very pretty. Actually, I wanted to throw in the bullpen after the game, but they had turned out the lights."

Instead he found a vacant field -- also without lights. "It was pitch dark," said Mills. "I had about 20 balls in my car and at first I had a plastic chair on home plate -- but it broke. Then I put the garbage can there and threw at it."

Even in the dark, his control must have been better than it had been in the game, because he hit the garbage can often enough to cause somebody to complain about the noise.

"It just showed me that this kid would do anything to succeed," said Tenace. "He'll do whatever it takes to pitch in the big leagues -- and he will. The Orioles got a great arm when they got him.

"I'll tell you another thing about Mills -- he made one of the greatest plays I've ever seen on a baseball field. I saw [Joe] Rudi's catch in the [1972] World Series and I played with Ozzie Smith -- and I never saw a better play than the one he [Mills] made.

"It was a squeeze bunt and he instinctively broke for the third base line. The field had some moisture on it and, when he dived to catch the ball, he just slid right toward the plate and tagged the runner going by to end the inning. I would have loved to have seen a tape of that play -- it's as good as any I've ever seen."

Tenace's recollection was that Mills turned an unassisted double play to end the inning, but Mills said it was only the inning-ending out.

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