Rhodes is armed with the right stuff Left-hander brings confidence to staff

February 25, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Pitching coach Dick Bosman marvels at the difference, and he is not one to get excited easily. Manager Johnny Oates has noticed it, too, and he can't help but consider the possibilities.

Arthur Rhodes has become a new man.

The 23-year-old left-hander also has become a new husband and a full-time father since the last time he took the mound for the Orioles. He was forced to grow up in a hurry last season, but the maturation process has taken its course, and he has taken a major step toward being a dominating major-league pitcher.

"He's come a long way, baby," Oates said, "but we still have a ways to go. He seems a little bit more out going -- a little more confident. There was a time when he was very introverted, but now I see him with Rick [Sutcliffe] and Ben [McDonald] and Alan Mills. It's a nice little support group they have there."

Rhodes is beginning to fit in, all right. He fits right into the fourth spot in Oates' projected starting rotation. He fits in with the team. He is fitting right into his new life at home. This is the way it all is supposed to come together, but it doesn't happen by accident.

The Orioles have been waiting for Rhodes to come into his own for a couple of years now. He was brought to the major leagues for the final weeks of the 1991 season and all but fell on his face. He came back last year and made an entirely different impression, though it took a challenge from the manager to get his act in gear.

The turning point came in late August, before a game against the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome. Rhodes had come up at midseason to win his first four starts, but his record had dropped to 4-4 when Oates told Bosman that it was time to put him on the spot.

The message was clear. Throw strikes or else. Throw strikes or the team would find someone who could. Throw strikes or a full-time job in the starting rotation might be farther in the future than anyone thought.

"Johnny's good at that," Bosman said. "You have to know when to do it. You can crush a guy with that, so you have to hope your timing is right."

The timing apparently was right. Rhodes gave up four hits and one walk in 7 2/3 innings on the way to a 4-0 victory that started the Orioles on a seven-game winning streak. Rhodes went on to win three of his last four decisions to complete a solid half-season that all but assured him a place in this year's rotation.

There was some risk. Oates was dealing with the fragile psyche of a young pitcher who was among the most valuable prospects in the organization. But he also was dealing with a team that had a chance to win the American League East title. The situation dictated a bold approach.

"I knew I was taking a risk, but the reasons were more selfish than that," Oates said. "I was not so much thinking about Arthur at that time. The object was, we were in a pennant race. It was a game I couldn't experiment with and let him pitch and pitch and pitch.

"The risk was taken for the team. I knew it was a risk for his mental state, but he wasn't the first pitcher who ever was told that he had to throw strikes."

Rhodes accepted the challenge. Now, he is putting himself to the test. He undertook an off-season conditioning program that brought him to spring training in excellent shape. He also has been seen running distances at Twin Lakes Park in the early hours of the morning.

He has thrown down the gauntlet for 1993, setting goals that -- if achieved -- would make him one of the top pitchers in the game.

"I've set out to win 15, maybe 20 games and make the All-Star team," he said.

That's quite a lofty standard for a pitcher who has barely shaken off his rookie status, but Oates smiled broadly when he heard what Rhodes had said.

"That's great," he said. "I've challenged all of them to set goals. If you don't, then you're just trying to go out and swim around.

"I think that's a realistic goal for Arthur. He won seven games in half a season last year, so I think 15 is realistic. You'll take 15 wins from your fourth starter."

In the meantime, Rhodes is settling in on the home front. He got married during the off-season and has moved permanently to Sarasota with his wife, Kerry, and 4-year-old son, Trey. He says that his stable home life has had a positive effect on his performance.

"It helped me last year," he said, "just knowing that I was going to get married. It settled me down."

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