Horn adopting defensive stance

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 19, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- On the 20th anniversary of the designated hitter, let us pay tribute one last time to the man for whom they invented the term, Sam Horn.

The dinosaur is not yet extinct, but spring is here, and Horn is still home in Bessemer, Ala., mulling his options.

He is "very close" to signing with one of three teams, according to his agent, Steve Whitman. "Just keep watching the wires," Horn said Wednesday night.

Whitman wouldn't identify the clubs pursuing the left-handed slugger. One apparently is Cleveland, a halfway house for Orioles rejects. Another could be the expansion Colorado Rockies.

The Orioles?

Well, they haven't quite bought into this notion that Horn has transformed himself into the next Don Mattingly at first base. He didn't fit with them last season, and with the addition of Harold Baines, he's expendable now.

"We made him an offer," general manager Roland Hemond said. "But it's going to be crowded, and he recognized that. We gave him an indication if things didn't work out, we'd try to help him. Evidently, he's got something else."

Horn, 29, would have landed a job by now, if only he could play a position. All that agility work he did this winter with former major-leaguer Mike Squires was a desperate attempt to make himself presentable at first base.

It's almost sad, the way Whitman is marketing Horn as a born-again defensive player. The agent is just doing his job, but surely no one is taking him seriously.

"You hit him a million grounders," former Pawtucket manager Ed Nottle told a Boston sportswriter as Horn was rising through the Red Sox minor-league system. "I've already hit him mine."

One can only guess how many million Horn fielded this winter. Here's a guy who made only one defensive appearance in his first 111 games before getting his first career start at first base for the Orioles on April 21, 1990.

dTC Horn actually started nine games at first that season, but hasn't played the field since. He's 6 feet 5, 247 pounds, with long legs and a short torso. It's difficult for him to bend for grounders. The only way he covers ground is if he lies down.

Yet, Whitman keeps claiming, "He really is a first baseman. He needs a chance to play it. Brady Anderson is living proof that if you get a chance to play, you can prove yourself.

"That's what we're working toward. Every team we've spoken to, we've made it clear our intent is to get playing time at first base."

Why didn't Horn adopt this stance sooner? He said that he took infield practice five out of seven days last season, but added, "To work at it is one thing, to get an opportunity is another. You've got to feel you're out there working for a reason."

Fair enough, but with National League expansion coming, Horn should have recognized the value of mastering a position. At today's salaries, few players employ such foresight. Horn earned $687,500 last season. What, him worry?

The problem is, much as we all love Big Sam, such one-dimensional players are obsolete. Orioles manager Johnny Oates prefers reserves like David Segui, a switch-hitter who can play several positions. Horn does only one thing: hit.

After 366 major-league games, he still hasn't recorded a stolen base or sacrifice bunt. He hit his first triple last May, but the truth is, he reached third only because Kevin Reimer -- a DH masquerading as a left fielder -- botched the play.

Still, who can forget the day when Horn crushed two three-run homers in the season opener at Kansas City in '90? Or the night he struck out six straight times to set a major-league record at Kansas City in '91?

One way or another, he was always fun to watch, especially two years ago, when he hit 21 homers in 317 at-bats. Last season, he declined to five homers in 162 at-bats, but that was because Glenn Davis got most of the starts at DH.

Not that Horn is bitter.

As usual, he's philosophical, upbeat.

"If you're not contributing to the team, you don't feel a part," he said. "I liked Baltimore. I just wish last year I had the chance to do the things I did in '91. I thought I earned that.

"There is a lot I wanted to accomplish -- like being the first to hit the warehouse. Hopefully, I'll be with some team where I can come back and say hello to the fans. They were always generous with their applause. They accepted me."

Horn returned their affection with countless hours of charity work, and won the club's first community relations award last winter. He was a dinosaur, but a lovable dinosaur. Farewell, Sam Horn.

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