When the Orioles got off to a fast start and became one of baseball's biggest surprises this season, many pointed to leadoff hitter Brady Anderson as the catalyst.
And when the Orioles began their slow fade in the American League East earlier this month, the same people pointed to Anderson's virus and subsequent slump as the cause.
In games the Orioles have won this year, including last night's 4-1 decision over the Toronto Blue Jays, Anderson is hitting .301 with 14 home runs, 53 RBI, 70 runs and 30 stolen bases. In losses, Anderson's line reads .233, five home runs, 23 RBI, 25 runs and 21 stolen bases.
Do stats lie?
"I don't think I'm any more or less important than anybody else on this team," Anderson said before last night's game at Camden Yards. "I think everybody is the same."
Anderson's importance to the Orioles earlier in the season can't be understated: His on-base percentage, productivity and unexpected power certainly played into the team's success, as did his defense in left field.
Nor should his role in the team's demise during the past three weeks be overstated: Except for the 1-for-28 slump that followed a bad case of the stomach flu, Anderson has not fallen off as badly as some others.
The only difference has been in terms of power.
"Any time you go 1-for-28 it's frustrating," said Anderson, whose average fell from .282 to .270 during that stretch beginning Sept. 8. "But the thing I've noticed this season is if you look at where I was after 100 at-bats, 200, 300, 400 and 500 at-bats is pretty much the same. The only thing that has changed statistically the last two months is that I've hit less home runs."
Despite hitting only one home run in his past 28 games, Anderson has still put together a memorable season. His 19 home runs remain the best among major-league leadoff hitters this season. He needs only one more home run to become the eighth player in history to have at least 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases.
Admittedly, Anderson feels the pressure of hitting one more home run.
"For some reason, a lot more emphasis is put on 20 than 19," said Anderson, who nearly hit one in his first at-bat last night against Jack Morris, taking Devon White to the warning track in straightaway center on an 0-for-3 night. "When I had eight earlier this year, I thought 10 would be nice, then 15."
Regardless of whether he reaches that mark, it has been without a doubt Anderson's breakthrough season as a major-leaguer. There are no longer questions about his future, about the trade for Mike Boddicker that brought him from the Boston Red Sox to the Orioles in 1989, about unfulfilled potential.
"It's been the most enjoyable season I've had, the best season I've had," said Anderson, 28. "I wish I didn't miss any days. I wish I could play 162 games."
As it stands, Anderson has played in more games (149) than any Oriole other than you-know-who. (Mike Devereaux also has played in 149.) And though some have questioned whether he has burned out a little down the stretch, Anderson discounts the notion. Well, sort of.
"Physically I'm in good shape," said Anderson, who lost 7 pounds in a day when he got sick and then had trouble gaining it back. "But maybe as a base stealer, the demand on my body is a little more. If somebody isn't a base stealer, stealing 70 times a year, they don't realize the pounding your body takes.
"But the season is very mentally draining. There have been times when mentally I've been burned out, I can agree with that. But is it different for me than for any other player on this team? There's been times when Johnny [Oates] has wanted to give me a day off, but I don't want to come out of the lineup. I just like playing."
It took four mostly frustrating seasons, years spent shuttling between Rochester and Baltimore, years spent almost exclusively as a platoon player, to reach this point. Should he finish this season with similar stats to those with which he started last night's game, Anderson will have done what many thought was beyond the realm of possibility.
With a .271 batting average and an above-average .378 on-base percentage that has been helped by 96 walks (tying Ken Singleton, who had 96 in 1975), Anderson has certainly done his job as the team's leadoff hitter. Throw in 95 runs, 76 RBI, 27 doubles, nine triples, 51 stolen bases and those 19 home runs.
Not bad for a guy with a career .219 average and 10 career home runs coming into the season.
"Brady is the biggest surprise on this baseball team," Oates said last night. "There's nothing in his previous minor-league or major-league career that leads you to believe that this was possible. You see a guy that works hard. He never finishes working."
Said pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, "What I've noticed and what people haven't talked about is the way Brady has kept his focus. On Friday and Saturday after games, he and Junior [Cal Ripken] are in the weight room for two or 2 1/2 hours. Those are things that I've seen great players like Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson do. He knows what it takes. He's willing to make the sacrifice."
Sutcliffe says he believes that part of Anderson's success this year has been that the Orioles pitchers have learned something else about their left fielder.
"He's got to give the pitching staff credit," said Sutcliffe. "He found out just as far as batters need to hit us in order to bring the ball back into the park."