Leadoff opportunity knocks, but can Orioles' Anderson answer?

Ken Rosenthal

April 06, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

If Brady Anderson was a character in an Anne Tyler novel, Oriole Park at Camden Yards wouldn't be just another baseball cathedral, but the Church of the Second Chance.

Anderson, 28, is the Orioles' Saint Maybe, so promising one moment, so disappointing the next, a player with immense ability but a .219 career average.

Today he starts over.

Today is Opening Day.

Manager John Oates admits "I've got everything against me," in committing to Anderson as his regular leadoff hitter and leftfielder, but today is a day of hope and renewal, a day to believe.

Baseball allows for a 45-year-old strikeout pitcher (Nolan Ryan), a 5-foot-8 power hitter (Kirby Puckett) and a shortstop who plays 1,573 straight games (Cal Ripken).

Why not a late-blooming Brady Anderson?

The game is unforgiving -- just ask Rick Dempsey -- but here's Anderson, in the perfect spot. Former leadoff man Mike Devereaux is batting fifth. Future leadoff man Luis Mercedes is in Rochester. Oates says the job is Anderson's indefinitely.

Today he is reborn. It's Opening Day and, for Anderson, Independence Day too. Oates and hitting coach Greg Biagini will let Brady be Brady. No more tinkering with his swing. No more ordering him to bunt. Just keep the ball on the ground, get on base, make things happen. That's all they ask.

Anderson, 6-for-9 in season openers, will sit against certain lefthanders, perhaps even Wednesday night against Cleveland's Dave Otto. But today he becomes the first Oriole to bat in the new ballpark. Today he enters the Church of the Second Chance.

"I've just got to keep playing like I have been," says Anderson, who batted .267 this spring with a .353 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. "It's a long season. I can't get too excited. But I feel over a long period of time, I'm going to score a lot of runs."

That's the idea, and it worked once before, for six weeks at the start of 1989. But Anderson couldn't sustain his hot start, and later injured his left (throwing) shoulder. Since then he's mostly been a bench player -- a good one, yes, but that's all.

The Orioles expected more when they acquired Anderson from Boston in the Mike Boddicker trade on July 30, 1988. All of baseball expected more when Anderson was named the AL East's top prospect earlier that year.

Anderson frustrates scores of fans and certain team officials, but no one more than himself. "People talk about me being a disappointment, and it's almost like it's worse for them than it is for me," he says. "I mean, seriously."

Seriously, he takes pride in being a capable pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement, but he'd rather play every day. Even then, Oates insists he should not be judged by conventional standards.

Why? Because Anderson can contribute offensively even when he goes 0-for-3 with a walk -- if, for example, he steals second after the walk, takes third on a grounder and scores on a 200-foot sacrifice fly.

What's more, the Orioles need a quality defensive player for the big leftfield at Camden Yards. Anderson made two fine catches in Friday's exhibition against the New York Mets, running down a line drive by Bill Pecota in the gap and a short fly by Howard Johnson down the third-base line.

Mercedes would not have made either play, but Mercedes is too dangerous a hitter to keep in Rochester long. Anderson deserves a lengthy trial run, or else this experiment a waste. He knows what's at stake. As recently as last September, he feared the end of his Orioles' career.

"I can guarantee you, if I didn't do well then, I wouldn't have gotten the chance in spring training," Anderson says. "I came up [from Rochester]. Luis came up. They were looking toward next year. Looking back at it, the way things worked out, I now realize how huge it was."

Anderson hit .385 after Sept. 1, and that's when this decision took root. "I went to bat for him a couple of times this winter and this spring," Oates says. "Sometimes you just have a feel on somebody. You give him a chance."

A year ago Cal Ripken talked about reaching "rock bottom" in June of 1990. Anderson speaks in similar terms about 1991. He can't quite identify his turning point, but he became more aggressive at the plate after recovering from a pulled left hamstring in mid-June.

Nothing came easily -- the arrival of Chito Martinez reduced his playing time in July, and the Orioles sent him to Rochester in August. But suddenly here he is, Saint Maybe entering the Church of the Second Chance.

Today he starts over.

Today is Opening Day.

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