First up for Orioles is a top priority

JOHN EISENBERG

April 01, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MIAMI -- Who's up first? It could be the first line of a baseball joke. And for the Orioles, it is.

Who's up first? The punch line has been a no-laugher for the Orioles for a while, since Al Bumbry slowed up a decade ago.

Who's up first? Jeff Stone was up first in 1988. Alan Wiggins before that. T-Bone Shelby before that.

The Orioles have sorted through a long and winding collection of leadoff hitters in search of Mr. Right. Or at least Mr. He Will Do (Sigh).

The search goes on.

Pete Stanicek was up first before he took on a career in whirlpooling. Tito Landrum was among the 14 who were up first in the sinkhole that was 1988.

Remember Donell Nixon, Up First Class of '90? Ken Gerhart? Stan Jefferson? You really want me to keep doing this?

Juan Bell was supposed to be up first by now, and he may well be next season -- for the Florida Marlins.

Mike Devereaux was up first last season, and it was no joke. He had 158 hits, scored 82 runs. A solid year. But he wasn't Mr. Right. He had more home runs than steals and will bat lower in the order in 1992.

The bottom line on the top of the order is this: It has been years since the Orioles had a classic, established leadoff man. Someone to work counts, draw walks, steal bases, harass pitchers, score runs early in games. And do it every day.

Now, after all these years, they finally have their man. At last, a terrific leadoff hitter is in the Orioles' camp this spring. Unfortunately, it is 45-year-old first-base coach Davey Lopes, 12th on the career steals list. Mr. Right (But Just Too Old).

So, the search goes on. Who's up first for the Orioles in 1992? There are several possibilities. Brady Anderson. Luis Mercedes. Manager John Oates has even suggested Randy (I'm Not Rickey, But They Thought I Was Fast Enough To Be An Outfielder, Remember?) Milligan might get a shot. He walks a lot.

"What, you want us to have the ideal leadoff man?" Oates said. "Well, who does? There's Brett Butler, Rickey Henderson. Not many others."

(Actually, there is Houston's Steve Finley, whom the Orioles dealt in the Glenn Davis trade. He was one of Oates' favorite players. You want to see Oates cry, mention Finley.)

It is something of a cruel joke on the Orioles -- yes, another punch line -- that Anderson and Mercedes would make an All-Star if joined at the hip. Anderson is fast and smart on the base paths and a first-rate outfielder, but a .219 career hitter. Mercedes is a big hitter, but short on defense and base-running instincts.

Imagine: Andercedes, the Incredible Two-Headed Leadoff Monster. Now there's a Mr. Right. But as they say in the punch-line biz: seriously, folks . . . .

Anderson probably will get the first chance to do it alone. He has disappointed since coming from the Red Sox as a top prospect in 1988, but remains an intriguing talent. His on-base percentage is always among the team's highest. He hasn't had an injury-free year since the minors, but his numbers are substantive when averaged over a full season.

His speed and defense give him a place as a backup, but the issue is whether he can lead off every day. He has driven the club a little batty with his hitting.

"Brady has to understand that his game is based on speed, that he's not a long-ball threat," Lopes said. "You have to know your limitations. His instincts are good when he gets on base. But he has to get there."

Said Anderson: "No one is more frustrated than I am when I pop the ball up. But I'm not going to change in that I swing at good pitches. I've hit the ball hard all spring. I hope this is the year."

Mercedes isn't even assured a place on the roster, although there's nothing left for him to prove at Rochester. But his defense is the worry. The other day Oates was asked if he would be "comfortable" with Mercedes in the outfield. "Uh, I'd play him," Oates said, stammering.

And regarding Mercedes' base-running: To say he's aggressive is to say it's warm and sunny in Florida. The joke is that he starts running and doesn't stop until he scores or gets thrown out. The other day Oates was talking about installing a hook at first base to grab him as he runs by.

"He's not a polished player," Lopes said. "We would control him on the base paths a little more than Brady. But it's just inexperience. He's worked hard here, on both his running and defense."

Is Mercedes a Mr. Right? Anderson? Or maybe Devereaux, who is stealing more bases this spring after studying at the Florida Instructional League?

"I have no problems with Mike batting first," Oates said.

What the manager wants, in any uniform, is an answer.

An answer instead of a punch line. Finally.

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