Yanks' Habyan joins long list of ex-Oriole pitchers who have made good

Ken Rosenthal

March 17, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- And now the latest chapter from that ever-expanding anthology, "Former Orioles pitchers making good."

In our last installment, three FOPs had finished among the top seven in the National League ERA race -- Dennis Martinez (2.39), Pete Harnisch (2.70) and Mike Morgan (2.78).

Now we salute New York Yankees righthander John Habyan. He didn't work enough innings to qualify for the AL ERA title last season, but his 2.30 ERA actually was the best of any FOP.

Yes, that John Habyan. Charter member of the Rochester shuttle. Best friend of Bill Ripken. Traded to the Yankees for Stan Jefferson on July 20, 1989.

Habyan, 28, didn't attract as much attention as other FOPs last season, but that's because he's a middle-inning reliever now, and by definition anonymous.

All he did was lead the Yankees with 66 relief appearances, finishing 4-2 with two saves and his club-best 2.30 ERA. In 90 innings, he struck out 70, walked 20 and allowed only 73 hits.

This spring has been no different. Habyan pitched a perfect ninth inning last night in the Yankees' 5-0 loss to the Orioles. In five exhibitions, he's 0-0 with one save and a 1.67 ERA.

"He was probably our most solid pitcher last year, along with [Scott] Sanderson," Yankees pitching coach Mark Connor said. "He just makes quality pitch after quality pitch."

On the surface, it appears the Orioles blew it again, for Jefferson is now out of baseball. But Habyan is the first to admit, "If anybody needed a change of scenery, it was me."

He struggled through parts of four seasons with the Orioles from 1985-88, then required surgery after separating his right shoulder in a sledding accident in Baltimore in January 1989.

At that point, his career appeared in serious jeopardy. "It wasn't looking too good when I was healthy," noted Habyan, the Orioles' third-round draft pick in '82.

"They were just running guys in and out of there. Boom! You'd be up for two weeks, then it would be, 'Oops, see you later, we'll try someone else.' It was crazy. Up and down. Up and down.

"As an athlete, I was almost embarrassed. After the surgery, I just said, 'Start over.' I didn't know if I'd have the same velocity. I made a lot of adjustments I was too stubborn to make when I was healthy."

Strange as it might seem, the Orioles should be proud -- not ashamed -- of his recovery. Habyan said it would not have been possible without the club's medical and coaching staffs.

Club physician Charles Silberstein performed the operation. Trainers Richie Bancells and Jamie Reed designed the rehabilitation program Habyan follows religiously to this day.

"If it wasn't for Jamie, Richie and Dr. Silberstein, I don't know where I'd be," Habyan said. "Their program made me even stronger. They helped me get my arm strength back."

Yet, that wasn't all the help Habyan received. Former pitching coach Al Jackson taught him his sinker. Current pitching coach Dick Bosman refined his stretch delivery at Rochester.

Why trade Habyan after expending all that energy?

Because six months after his surgery, the Orioles weren't even certain he'd return to his old mediocre form -- despite his 2.17 ERA in seven games at Rochester at the time of the trade.

More important, the club was in a pennant race, and with Steve Finley hurt, in desperate need of an outfielder. Jefferson proved a useful cog, driving in 21 runs in 45 games and leading the club with a .354 average in September-October.

The Orioles lost him to Cleveland on a waiver claim the following May. Jefferson went from there to Cincinnati on a Triple-A contract,and was released at the end of last season. He's without a team after undergoing surgery last winter for a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Habyan, meanwhile, is so entrenched with the Yankees, Connor said he has "nothing to prove" this spring. Not bad for a pitcher who spent a good portion of his rocky Orioles career driving his truck from Rochester to Baltimore -- and back.

"It got so bad, I was going through a toll booth one time and got a return token," Habyan joked. Indeed, it was only fitting that his most memorable performance as an Oriole came on the verge of a 1987 demotion.

This was at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Scott McGregor was coming off the disabled list, and the Orioles needed to clear a roster spot. Habyan was the expected victim -- until he replaced Mike Boddicker and retired his last 19 hitters to earn a 10-5 victory.

Just before Boddicker got knocked out in the fourth inning, Habyan joked with fellow reliever Mike Kinnunen, "Who's going to take the bullet?" Afterward, Kinnunen told him, "I just took the bullet right in the back, thanks."

In retrospect, the Orioles' only mistake with Habyan was keeping him a starter. Habyan is 3-9 lifetime as a starter, 10-3 as a reliever. After the trade he also started at Columbus, but the following year, another former Orioles employee, Columbus pitching coach Ken Rowe, began using him exclusively in relief.

From there, Habyan developed a sharp-breaking slider and strengthened his arm to the point where he again throws 89-90 mph. He's so diligent about maintaining his mechanics, Connor said he corrected them only three or four times last year.

Thus closes another chapter.

Hats off to John Habyan.

Our new favorite FOP.

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