Except on mound, Mills is kid at heart Baseball card heroes now are teammates

March 17, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Right-hander Alan Mills was sitting at his locker with a handful of baseball cards yesterday, still looking a little surprised to be here. He is so unassuming that he sets himself up for the slings and arrows of his outrageous teammates, but he's having too much fun to care.

"It's kind of awesome to be in the same clubhouse with three Cy Young Award winners," he said, nodding toward Rick Sutcliffe, Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Flanagan. "I'm just happy to be here."

Sutcliffe is on him all the time. Some of Mills' teammates even set him up for a mock arrest in the Comiskey Park bullpen last year. He takes it all good-naturedly, even though he is not the new kid anymore.

Mills, 26, has earned the right to make himself at home. He emerged as one of the American League's top middle relievers following the seemingly insignificant trade that brought him to the Orioles last spring. But when his mother unearthed his baseball card collection recently, he became a fan all over again.

He had a 1980 Harold Baines card. He had a Valenzuela card from the early 1980s. He had an old Sutcliffe. He brought them all to the clubhouse to get them signed. Perhaps another season like 1992 and he will become more blase, but not yet.

"I stayed in a hotel all last year," he said. "That should tell you how comfortable I've been."

If it is any consolation, he had to feel a lot more comfortable than the guys who had to face him. Mills came out of nowhere last year to go 10-4 with a 2.61 ERA, quickly establishing himself as an overpowering middleman. He was mentioned as a possible fifth starter during the off-season, but he did such a solid job in the bullpen that manager Johnny Oates was not willing to create one hole to fill another.

Nothing has changed this spring. Mills has come out of the bullpen to make four exhibition appearances and he is yet to be scored upon in seven innings. He will be back in the same role he filled last year, but he continues to move up in the estimation of the manager and coaching staff.

Oates hasn't changed the bullpen schematic, but he has changed the way he looks at his right-handed relief corps. Mills proved himself last year and he is improving himself this spring, which should lead to an even more meaningful role this season.

"I'm not anticipating anything different," Oates said, "but I like the makeup of our right-handers and the flexibility there. I can see all three of them getting save situations. [Gregg] Olson is my closer, but if we got into a situation where I used Olson three or four days in a row, I'd have no problem using Mills or [Todd] Frohwirth in a save situation."

Both recorded saves last year, but only in situations in which Oates had nowhere else to turn. The difference this season is in the confidence level he will have when he is placed in that kind of situation, and in the ability of both Mills and Frohwirth to hold runners on base.

"Frohwirth and Mills have made efforts this spring, and Mills has made great strides holding runners," Oates said. "All three of our right-handers were notoriously poor holding runners last year, but I've seen improvement in Froh and particularly in Mills. He went from 1.55 seconds to 1.25 seconds [from the stretch to the catcher's mitt] and didn't lose a thing yesterday."

The situation with the left-handers is not so clear, but only because Oates is not ready to designate who will fill the last two spots in the bullpen. Jim Poole and hard-throwing Brad Pennington appear to be in line for those jobs, but Mike Flanagan, Jamie Moyer and Wayne Edwards remain in consideration.

How different this must feel to Mills, who was preparing to spend the 1992 season with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers when the Orioles sent Francisco de la Rosa and Mark Carper to the New York Yankees to acquire him last year. Now, he is one of the established ones, and he is looking forward to spending another season in Baltimore.

"It's a great city," he said. "Just being there for that last year was great. It's a really nice city and the people are really nice. I really like it there."

Maybe this year he'll be confident enough to get an apartment.

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