ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He seemed like a prohibitive long shot when he arrived at Twin Lakes Park a month ago. But Fernando Valenzuela's dream of returning to the major leagues is about to become a reality.
The Orioles have not officially announced that he has made the 25-man major-league roster, but the roster cuts that were made yesterday left no doubt that Valenzuela will open the season as the club's fifth starter.
"Right now, we are down to nine pitchers, and we're looking for one more," said manager Johnny Oates. "If Fernando Valenzuela makes our ballclub, I've already said that he will be used as a starter."
Why was the club being so coy? Why wouldn't club officials just come right out and say that Valenzuela had made the final cut, since it was obvious anyway?
Because, technically, Valenzuela is not under contract yet. The details were worked out when he accepted a non-roster invitation to training camp, but he probably will not be signed and placed on the roster until Monday.
The club could have signed him yesterday, but it wouldn't have been prudent, because he would then be entitled to his entire 1993 salary if something went wrong during the next few days. He is scheduled to make his final exhibition appearance today against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Valenzuela isn't taking anything for granted, even though he has not given up a run in 14 innings of exhibition work. He declined requests for
interviews yesterday because he did not want to appear presumptuous.
"I do not feel comfortable making any comment," he said, "because no one has told me that I've made the team."
The earliest that Valenzuela could appear in the regular-season starting rotation is April 13 against the Texas Rangers at Arlington Stadium. Oates won't need a regular fifth starter until a couple of weeks later, but he is looking forward to seeing what Valenzuela can do.
"I think he could be good for our ballclub," Oates said. "I don't know if he can re-create the kind of excitement he did when he started out [in 1981]. . . . If he goes out and pitches and does well, that will be great. Fernandomania doesn't work if you're 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA, but I don't believe it's going to be that way. If I did, he wouldn't be here in camp."
Countdown to Opening Day
Tomorrow * Orioles exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates at Camden Yards, 3:05 p.m. (Approximately 20,000 tickets available. Upper and lower reserve seats, regularly $8, are $4. All other seats at regular-season prices.)
Saturday * Orioles exhibition game vs. Pittsburgh Pirates at RFK Stadium in Washington, 1:35 p.m. (approximately 20,000 tickets available)
* Baseball Gala at Camden Station, 8 p.m. Tickets are $125 each. For information, call (410) 727-1539.
Sunday * Oriole Advocates 8K Home Run, 8 a.m., starting at Camden Yards. For information, call (410) 882-5455.
Monday * Opening Day: Orioles vs. Texas Rangers, 1:35 p.m. (sold out)