At catcher, Tackett still tries to hack it

March 30, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Catcher Jeff Tackett knows his name is not a household word in Baltimore, but he's just hoping the Orioles' upcoming roster reduction doesn't turn into a popularity contest.

Veteran Rick Dempsey is one of the most popular players in Orioles history, and he has gotten more playing time this spring, but Tackett has the better numbers as the competition for the No. 2 catching job enters its final week.

"This spring has been everything I hoped for," Tackett said. "I don't know anything. I can't speculate on anything. I just wanted to come in here and give 100 percent, and if I do that, I can live with whatever happens."

He has done that, batting .467 in a limited audition. He was in the starting lineup yesterday and delivered two run-scoring hits in the Orioles' 11-7 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Joe Robbie Stadium.

"He continues to hit the ball well," manager John Oates said. "He's coming along. There was a point early in his career where he was known more for his catching and throwing. He didn't have any power. But he started working with Greg [Biagini, then the Rochester manager] last year, and he has started to drive the ball. He's hitting real well this year."

Dempsey is batting .158 with no home runs and no RBI in 10 games, but he has something that Tackett cannot compete with -- the support of the masses. He is another link to the club's storied past, and he further endeared himself to local fans when he came back for the final weekend at Memorial Stadium last October.

"He's Mr. Oriole," Tackett said. "He has done so much, and he was there so long. He's always been a crowd-pleaser. Hopefully, that can be me someday."

Tackett had to figure he had the No. 2 job wrapped up when the Orioles traded veteran backup Bob Melvin to the Kansas City Royals in December, but Dempsey accepted a non-roster invitation to spring training and complicated the situation considerably.

Dempsey spent 10 1/2 seasons in Baltimore, where he played on two pennant winners and was the Most Valuable Player in the 1983 World Series. He was released by the club in October 1986, and played for the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers before returning this spring.

This could be his last hurrah, depending on which direction the club decides to go when the final roster cut is made this weekend. Tackett still has options, but he has spent more than his share of time at the Triple-A level.

"I don't wish anything bad on anyone," Tackett said. "I didn't want to come in here and say, 'Dempsey got four hits today, so I have to get four hits.' I've been relaxed, and it seems to be paying off."

The club faces a number of difficult decisions in the next several days. Oates will announce the first four slots in his starting rotation today, and could make the final cut before the club heads north on Thursday evening.

Tackett and Dempsey won't be the only ones in suspense. Utility candidates Mark McLemore and Juan Bell also figure to be on edge, along with leadoff prospect Luis Mercedes.

McLemore has adjusted well to a limited role. His .423 average is the best on the club among players with 15 or more at-bats. He also has two of the club's four pinch hits this spring. Bell has gotten far more playing time, but he is batting just .233 and has fewer hits overall.

The decision probably would not be complicated if it were based solely on what happens on the field, but this move figures to be made higher up the chain of command. Bell is out of options. He is the last holdover from the Eddie Murray trade. He has just enough untapped talent to become a front-line player.

The trouble is, he's a natural shortstop on a club that doesn't figure to need any help at that position for quite a while, unless the Cal Ripken contract negotiations remain unsettled for another seven or eight months.

Mercedes has options left, so the club could take the easy way out in cutting down to five outfielders. Oates is satisfied with the progress Mercedes has made in the outfield this spring, and no one doubts his ability to swing the bat, but the team would be hard-pressed to bypass Brady Anderson (.250, six stolen bases in seven attempts) for him.

Orioles tonight

Exhibition opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time: 7:05

TV: HTS

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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