At-bats can't begin to fill Hulett's void

KEN ROSENTHAL

August 19, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles were in Minnesota on the one-year anniversary of the accident.

"You all right?" manager Johnny Oates asked Tim Hulett.

"I'm OK," Hulett replied, forcing a smile.

It was the answer Oates wanted, the answer he expected, but it wasn't the truth.

Hulett wasn't OK.

Not on July 22, one year after his 6-year-old son, Sam, was struck by an automobile. And not on July 23, the anniversary of Sam's death.

"Usually, when I get to the park, it's a lot easier to get away from it," Hulett said last week. "Those two days in particular, it was tough to keep it off my mind.

"As hard as I tried not to be, it wouldn't be true to say I wasn't distracted. I was very distracted."

Yet, you wouldn't have known it from the way Hulett played. He went 3-for-7 in the two games, at a time the Orioles were trying to acquire Chris Sabo to unseat him at third base.

Sabo might have helped, but how much? Hulett has batted .336 since replacing the injured Leo Gomez on July 9. When the Orioles acquired Mike Pagliarulo on Sunday, it was for bench help, nothing more.

Hulett, 33, has made five errors in his past eight games, but, for the most part, he has been one of the Orioles' steadiest players -- not bad for a utility man who had every reason to crumble this summer.

It has been a period of mixed emotions for Hulett. On one hand, he's enjoying his longest stint as an everyday player since 1986. On the other hand, he's still trying to cope with the loss of his son.

"It was a difficult couple of days for me and the family," Hulett said of the one-year anniversary of Sam's death. "It's just one of those things we're going to have to deal with every year, really.

"My wife [Linda] talked to the boys about it, made sure they understood what the day was, exactly. We've been really open about it the whole time. It's not like there's any new development."

No, but there's still a huge void. Sam was the third of Hulett's four sons. The remaining boys -- Tug, 10; Joe, 9; and Jeff, 5 -- still run into the Orioles clubhouse to play jokes on Ben McDonald. But as Linda Hulett once said, "Nothing will ever be the same."

Everyone would understand if Tim's play suffered, if the loss weighed so heavily on him that he could not function as before. But with this unexpected opportunity, precisely the opposite is taking place.

As always, Hulett draws strength from his religious faith and from his family. Yet, he sees things even more clearly now. Players often say, "It's only a game." Hulett knows it better than anyone.

"It's a matter of keeping things in perspective, not being overwhelmed by the pressures of the game day in and day out," Hulett said. "In a pennant race, you can allow the pressure to really build. But keeping it in perspective is something we need to do as athletes. It helps you perform."

So, in a sense, Hulett is enjoying the game like never before. It gives him particular delight to walk into the clubhouse every day without staring at the lineup card. Hulett doesn't have to look. He knows he will be playing third base.

He has started 34 of the Orioles' past 36 games. He has hit nearly as many doubles (13) as Harold Baines (16) and Cal Ripken (17). He needs one more at-bat for his highest season total since 1987.

"I feel like a kid caught with his hand in the candy jar," Hulett said. "It's like, you go to the store once in a while, and your mom lets you grab a piece of gum. Then, all of a sudden, she says, 'Go grab a handful.' "

Of course, Hulett better grab now -- even with Gomez's future uncertain, the Orioles don't envision him as a long-term answer at third. Hulett almost certainly will be back next season. And almost certainly, he'll be in a utility role.

It has been this way ever since he joined the Orioles in 1989. Hulett always has understood his niche, never clamoring for more playing time, never taking the club to salary arbitration. Still, he isn't without his pride.

"What do I offer?" Hulett asked, repeating a question. "I offer consistent defense, especially. I've played the game long enough. I try to throw the ball to the right place, try to be in good position.

"Offensively, I offer someone who can handle the bat a little bit. If you want to bunt, I can bunt. If you want to hit-and-run, I can hit-and-run. I'm versatile at the plate."

It was true when Sam was alive, and it's just as true today. Watching Hulett, you'd think nothing has changed. Listening to him, you know everything has.

"It doesn't get easier," Hulett said. "It's something you deal with. It's not something you get over."

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