Down day for QB, up day for Orioles

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 01, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland fans no doubt were crushed yesterday by the Terps' latest heartbreaking defeat, a 31-24 loss to North Carolina. But somewhere in the bowels of Camden Yards, Orioles executives were flashing sinister smiles.

Why the unusual interest from our beloved club officials? Because they've got a six-figure investment in Michael Thomas, the North Carolina freshman quarterback who was removed before halftime. Thomas, an outfielder, was their fourth pick in the 1990 draft.

The Orioles want him to focus more on baseball, so they're secretly rooting that he'll lose interest in football. By that standard, they probably viewed his performance yesterday as a positive sign. Hate to break the bad news, but . . .

"Michael Thomas can be as good as any quarterback to ever play at North Carolina -- in time," Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said. "We didn't take Mike out because of his play today. We took him out because things weren't clicking."

North Carolina trailed 14-7 when Brown inserted sophomore Jason Stanicek with 46 seconds left in the second quarter. Stanicek drove the Tar Heels 68 yards in four plays to tie the score, then spent the rest of the game handing off to the wondrous Natrone Means.

That's the principal qualification for a North Carolina quarterback -- Means carried 31 times yesterday for 249 yards. The Orioles, though, figure if Stanicek can learn to run the option, Thomas will be reduced to being the ACC's best punter, and maybe then will switch to baseball full time.

Is this hilarious, or what?

Stanicek, as you might have guessed, is the younger brother of former Orioles prospect Pete Stanicek. As frequently as Pete was injured, it's only fitting that Jason lost his starting job to Thomas two weeks ago after suffering a bruised leg.

Right now the two are interchangeable -- Thomas completed four of 13 passes for 35 yards yesterday, Stanicek five of 10 for 139. Thomas also leads the ACC with a 43.3-yard punting average. Given his progress, he's certain to devote most of his energies to football, and therein lies the rub.

Thomas has played three straight seasons with the Orioles' Rookie League club in Bluefield, W.Va. Assistant general manager Doug Melvin believes he should be approaching Double-A, but because Thomas is available only three to four months a year, he has just 379 professional at-bats.

"As long as he continues to play football, baseball is on the back burner," Melvin said. "I had a little session with him last summer. I said I'd like for him to give baseball more of a chance. He's not going to improve if he's not playing. He's got some ability -- if he concentrates on baseball."

It's the classic Deion Sanders-Bo Jackson situation, only Thomas displays average tools in baseball. He batted .301 with two homers and 27 RBI in 163 at-bats at Bluefield last season. Sounds good, until you consider it was his third year at baseball's lowest classification.

The Orioles drafted three pitchers ahead of Thomas -- Mike Mussina, Erik Schullstrom and Jeff Williams. They gave Mussina a $225,000 bonus, and this year he won 18 games. They gave Thomas approximately $100,000, and now he makes Glenn Davis look like a bargain.

Thomas got the huge bonus because he was a two-sport star at Richmond (N.C.) County High. "You always think you can convince them to play baseball," Melvin said, but suddenly everything appears to be working against the Orioles.

The 6-foot-2, 221-pound Thomas is listed as a freshman, but he's already 20 years old. He spent one year at the Fork Union Military Academy after finishing high school. He was a medical redshirt last season after tearing a thumb ligament in Week 4.

If he continues playing football, he won't be available to the Orioles full time until he's 25. Spring football prevents him from attending spring training. The ACC regular season prevents him from participating in the Florida Instructional League.

"I'm sure the Orioles want me to make a decision," he said yesterday. "I see myself progressing in the organization. I'm doing well. I'm picking up on things. It's just the fact I don't spend as much time on baseball.

"If I did, who knows how quickly I could move up? I see that myself. But right now, I don't get a chance to get much baseball in. All I can do is keep playing hard in both sports, and see which one works out best."

Meanwhile, Orioles executives are crossing their fingers. Sneering at Thomas' quarterback skills like football scouts. And secretly rooting for, of all people, the brother of Pete Stanicek.

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