ST. PETERSBERG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Leo Gomez is a free man suddenly, just about the freest man in Florida, and he can't get over it. There is no one competing for his job. No promotions to seek. No reason to wonder if he fits on the roster. Everything is settled. He is the Orioles third baseman, no cries, no whispers. He can't get over it.
"For every day of my career I have had to fight," he said yesterday. "My first year in spring training, there were six third basemen. I was not a draft pick, so every year I had to fight for attention, for a promotion. Now, I am in the major leagues and I look around the clubhouse and I'm the only third baseman, and I shake my head."
He can't get over it. It's a condition common among players who take a reasonably long time reaching the majors, who aren't coddled by the front office, who become accustomed to the game's cold underbelly. They can't relax. They're conspiracy theorists. They're always looking for the cloud in a sunny sky.
It's a tough way to live, tough on the sleep count, but not a bad way to approach a game that can turn on you -- and often does. The Orioles have one of the self-acknowledged jitter kings in Randy Milligan, and look what happened to him. He didn't do a thing to lose his job, and did anyway. Milligan spoke to Gomez this spring.
"He told me I would be fine," said Gomez, who spent five years in the minors, "but he also told me to keep working. Always. I understand that. I'm not going to relax. There are minor-leaguers who want my job, just like I wanted it before. Don't get me wrong. It's great to know I've got a job. But if I relax enough, one day I will be relaxing at home."
The Orioles love hearing that, love it because they remember their last rookie third baseman who played as well as Gomez did a year ago. Craig Worthington had a terrific 1989, but showed up late and overconfident the next spring and never again resembled the same player.
The club finally traded Worthington to the Padres last month, resolving their long-standing competition for Brooks Robinson's old job. Worthington is hitting .111 this spring. All of which is the best argument for never relaxing, particularly early in your career. Because one credible season in the majors doesn't mean a thing. There are only 12,453 examples.
There is, in fact, a report out supporting the theory of the sophomore slump. A Florida college teacher studied hundreds of high-number rookies and found that more than not had poorer second seasons, and a fair number never fully regained their rookie form. Those who kept up their rookie rate tended to have long, happy runs.
Enter Leo Gomez, who hit 16 home runs a year ago and committed but one error in his last 82 games.
"This is a big year for me," he said. "I think I'll be OK for a long time if I do well this year."
It won't be for lack of effort. That has become Gomez's hallmark. Cal Ripken Sr. hit him hundreds of pre-game ground balls last year to help his defense. He went to the instructional league after last season for more defensive homework. He has constantly sought advice from older heads.
"I talked all the time with Dwight Evans," Gomez said. "Like when both of us weren't playing, I'd go to him and say, 'Let's talk baseball.' He'd say, 'OK, what do you want to know?' I'd have him ask me questions. He'd set up game situations. 'Bases loaded, two outs, what are you thinking at the plate?' Or, like, 'Third and first, one out, where do you play in the field?'
"It was like school. I'm going to miss Dewey [Evans]. But I also talked to Cal Sr., Cal Jr., Johnny [Oates]. They've been around. They know. It was good because some people, when I ask questions, they think I'm joking. But I talked to Junior a lot about where to play hitters. I know the league better now, but we'll keep talking."
Gomez's defense was so improved last year that the Orioles aren't even concerned about it. And it's been terrific this spring. But offense is the traditional subject of sophomore slumps, and Gomez didn't exactly break ground anyway with his .233 average last season.
"I'm concentrating on that," he said. "I'm not even worried about home runs. They'll come. My average is the thing."
Said Oates: "I feel good about him. Leo has a chance to be a very productive hitter. He has an excellent eye and works the count deep, so he sees a lot of good pitches. I'm just looking for his continued improvement. It's not written in stone that he'll have to make a lot of adjustments just because it's his second year."
No, it's not. But it's a big year for him, a huge year. So you won't find him relaxing even though he's a free man now, just about the freest man in Florida. Relax? Are you kidding?