Younger Buford has tools, but may need wedge in O's outfield

Ken Rosenthal

June 18, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

HAGERSTOWN -- You can't sit in a minor-league ballpark without projecting into the future, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to picture Don Buford's youngest son Damon as a second-generation Oriole.

Damon, 22, is a speedy leadoff hitter, gifted outfielder and legitimate major-league prospect. Unfortunately, he's in the same organization as Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux -- and even more alarming, the same organization as Jeffrey Hammonds.

The Orioles still haven't signed Hammonds, their No. 1 pick, but Mike Mussina already is predicting his former Stanford teammate will play in the majors by the end of next season. Anderson and Devereaux needn't worry. Buford is first on the Hammonds hit list.

LTC Right now he's at Double-A, playing a graceful centerfield and leading the Eastern League with 29 stolen bases. It's no secret he needs to improve his hitting -- he's batting .255 with one homer and 19 RBIs -- but this is only his second full season as a professional.

"One day he'll play in the big leagues," predicts Don Buford, the former Orioles outfielder who is Damon's manager at Hagerstown. "I don't know how soon, but I have no doubt he will. He can run, throw, hit and steal bases. And defensively, he fits in right now."

So, what happens next? Damon figures to spend a full season at Hagerstown, then at least one year at Rochester. In other words, Hammonds might be ready to join Anderson and Devereaux before Damon ever gets a chance.

Club officials drool over such predicaments -- "it's never too crowded," assistant GM Doug Melvin says, almost chuckling. Likewise, neither Buford is concerned. Hammonds can block Damon's path to the Orioles, but not the major leagues.

"It doesn't matter. He doesn't feel threatened," Don was saying last night, before Damon went 3-for-5 with two RBIs and three runs scored in Hagerstown's 10-4 victory over New Britain. "If Hammonds is that good, there are 25 other clubs along the way."

Make that 27 with expansion, but you get the idea. Damon was a junior at Southern Cal when Hammonds was a freshman at Stanford. He recalls him as "the kind of player you don't forget," but adds, "that won't affect how I play. He has to develop just like I do."

Hammonds -- like last year's No. 1 draft pick, Hagerstown rightfielder Mark Smith -- must make the transition to wooden bats. That's one reason hitters generally don't advance as quickly as pitchers. Besides, so much can happen along the way.

Take Damon's brother, Don Jr. The Orioles signed him as a non-drafted free agent in 1987, and for a time it appeared he might be a prospect. Don scored 91 runs and stole 77 bases in his first full season, but never rose above Double-A.

Don was the same size as Damon -- 5 feet 10, 170 pounds -- and a switch-hitter to boot (Damon bats righthanded). Melvin, however, recalls that he "couldn't hit at all." And both Don Sr. and Damon say he couldn't handle the pressure of pro ball.

Not that Don Sr. is complaining. Today his oldest son is 26, and completing medical school at UCLA. His middle son, Daryl, 24, just finished law school at USC. And his wife, Alescia, continues to operate her own public relations firm in L.A.

It's quite a family, but as far as baseball is concerned, Damon is the last hope. "If I don't make it," he jokes, "I guess we'll have another generation in 20 years and give it one more try."

Seriously, he adds, "My brother was a perfectionist. To be a doctor, you pretty much have to be. But he brought that out to the baseball field. And baseball is not the kind of sport where you can be a perfectionist all the time. To fail seven out of 10 times, I'm sure it took its toll on him."

Damon is different -- poised, relaxed, wise to the ways of the game. He freely admits, "I don't think I'm a consistent enough hitter right now." Don Sr. marvels at his instincts, the way he freezes opposing baserunners by charging line-drive singles as if he's about to make a catch.

A 10th-round pick in 1990, he earns approximately $1,100 per month and shares an apartment with Hagerstown second baseman Brad Tyler. Hammonds, meanwhile, is expected to sign for at least $700,000, the amount Houston gave Phil Nevin, the No. 1 overall pick.

Different world, same destination. Melvin says the Orioles never hesitated drafting Hammonds, because in today's game, "You can't count on players being with you for long periods of time." Anderson and Devereaux become free agents in 1994. You never know.

Anderson moved from center to left; Hammonds eventually could force out Devereaux. Where does this leave Buford? Perhaps learning a new position -- he played left in college -- or perhaps in limbo, if he doesn't progress offensively.

"His approach to hitting has to change a little bit," Melvin says. "At this point, he hits too many flyballs. It sounds like what we used to say about Brady. He's got to be more consistent with his hitting approach, make some adjustments."

Melvin says Damon might never be a .300 hitter, but he drives the ball well enough to hit eight to nine homers a year. Whatever the analysis, Damon isn't flustered. The kid will do his father proud. If not in Baltimore, then somewhere else.

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