Hoiles' deal lookin' good these days

Ken Rosenthal

April 27, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Amazing how general manager Roland Hemond suddenly looks a lot smarter with the Orioles winning. Not only is Brady Anderson finally evening out the Mike Boddicker trade, Chris Hoiles is making the Fred Lynn deal look like an absolute theft.

It's rare when a club can acquire a promising everyday catcher for a fading veteran, but that's exactly what the Orioles did on Aug. 31, 1988, the day they sent Lynn to Detroit for Hoiles and pitchers Cesar Mejia and Robinson Garces.

Hoiles, 27, is the only player still active from the trade. In '88, he led all Tigers minor leaguers with 19 home runs. Even then, everyone knew he could hit. But he started his pro career as a first baseman, so his catching skills were in question.

As it turns out, he's developing into a cross between Mickey Tettleton and Bob Melvin, the two catchers the Orioles traded so he could play every day. Hoiles is proving just as dangerous a slugger as Tettleton, just as insightful a receiver as Melvin.

True, the Orioles repaid the Tigers by giving away Tettleton for pitcher Jeff Robinson. But awful as that trade was, Hoiles is still 4 1/2 years younger than The Mick. He'll post similar offensive numbers, and already calls a better game.

To think, the only price was Lynn -- a small pittance, given the demand for young catchers. Cleveland gave up Joe Carter to get Sandy Alomar Jr. Milwaukee made B.J. Surhoff the first pick of the '85 draft. Philadelphia invested $6.75 million to re-sign Darren Daulton.

Yesterday, Hoiles hit his fourth homer and drove in his 10th run in the Orioles' 3-1 loss to New York. He ranks seventh in the AL with a .345 average, and has reached safely via hit or walk in all 18 games. Manager Johnny Oates expects him to finish with 20 homers and 70 RBIs.

Tettleton (.277, 6, 14) is just as hot, but offers only that one dimension. Melvin, now with Kansas City, says Hoiles has made "great strides" behind the plate. Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says, "he's certainly improved his catching, improved it an awful lot."

Anderson can't say he regrets the trade -- Lynn hit seven homers and drove in 19 runs in September of '88, and Detroit finished second to Boston by just one game. But at the time, a Tigers official dismissed the Orioles' return as three "non-prospects." Anderson knew that wasn't the case.

"Ask Rex Barney what I told him," Anderson says, referring to the Orioles' stadium announcer. "I told Rex, "This is one kid I hate to lose.'"

Indeed, no one will ever confuse Hoiles with Chris Pittaro and Torey Lovullo, two of Anderson's former phenoms. But though the Orioles considered Hoiles the prize of the Lynn package, they knew him mostly as a first baseman, In fact, they almost took another catcher, Rey Palacios, instead.

Palacios was closer to the majors; Hoiles spent nearly all of '88 at Double A. Oates, then manager at Rochester, recommended against Palacios, but didn't know a thing about Hoiles. The man who did was John Stokoe, the Orioles' scouting supervisor for the eastern third of the country.

Stokoe loved Hoiles, and as the scout who signed Mike Flanagan, his opinion carried weight. The problem was getting Lynn to accept the deal. Stokoe, driving his daughter to college in upstate New York, kept pulling off the road every 30 minutes to call Hemond as the trading deadline approached.

In the end, the Orioles never had to decide which catcher they wanted. With the Lynn negotiations reaching a climax, the Tigers sent Palacios and pitcher Mark Lee to Kansas City for pitcher Ted Power. Hemond immediately told Tigers GM Bill Lajoie, "We'll take Hoiles instead.' "

Lajoie was reluctant to trade another catcher, but Hemond convinced him they had come too far.

Hoiles, like Brady Anderson, says he's liberated playing every day -- "Johnny's given the game to me," he explains. "I feel the pitching staff is mine." Oates, a former catcher, allows Hoiles to call every pitch, claiming that's the only way he'll learn.

The big thing is, he's now confident enough to call breaking balls in fastball counts. The pitchers appreciate that he's thinking along with them.

Just ask Rick Sutcliffe, who has thrown three complete games in four starts. Sutcliffe hadn't pitched in the American League since 1984, so it was essential his catcher know the hitters. "The majority of success I've had," Sutcliffe says, "I've had because of him."

Last Wednesday in Kansas City, after the Randy Milligan-Bill Ripken collision, Hoiles kept firing the ball back at Sutcliffe to keep his attention. It was a sure sign the catcher had finally arrived. Amazing how things look so much better now.

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