Voigt's value to O's is unquestionable


August 27, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

So, here was the deal: leading run on third base, one out, bottom of the eighth, Jack Voigt pinch hitting . . . and thinking about what, you ask? The 100-degree heat? The AL East standings? The pitcher's curveball? What Bill Clinton and Jackie O. really talked about on that boat?

Not! Incorrect-a-mundo!

Voigt, the Orioles' 27-year-old rookie, handyman and chatterbox (not in that order), was thinking about a conversation he had two years ago in Rochester with the immortal Benny Distefano.

(Which Benny Distefano, you ask? The career minor-leaguer who had a cup of coffee in the bigs? Or the one who, well, you're right, there wasn't another.)

Voigt and Distefano were teammates in Rochester in '91, and Voigt, as usual, was busy picking the older player's brain. They were talking about pinch hitting.

"A lot of people tell you to take that first pitch because you're coming in cold," Voigt said yesterday, "but Benny told me, 'What do you have to lose? Go up there with a pitch in mind, and if you get it, go for it. If you miss, hey, you're warmed up.' To this day I think about that."

So, Voigt was at bat yesterday with the game on the line, thinking fastball away, and darn if the Angels' pitcher, Steve Frey, didn't come in with a fastball away on the first pitch. Voigt singled, driving in the go-ahead run, and the Orioles were on their way to a five-run rally and a 9-4 win.

"Voigt comes through . . . again," manager Johnny Oates said.

Just another big bop for the Orioles' most inquiring mind.

Let's back up a minute. Long before he began playing his way into Oates' heart, Voigt was renowned in the clubhouse for his run-on chatter. To call him a talker is to call Garbo relatively quiet.

"He talks to any and everyone," Oates said. "He talks to fans during games. Talks to the players on the other team. Talks constantly to the umpires. He's only been in the league a few months and the umpires already know him on a first-name basis."

It's not all idle chatter, though. There is a purpose in there.

You have to understand. Voigt's teammates call him Roy Hobbs because he came out of nowhere with a run of hits in June and July. But Hobbs was "The Natural" and Voigt is anything but. By his own admission, he "doesn't have that much talent." He is in the bigs, and starting to thrive as a utility man, largely because he has learned the secrets of the game.

Pitchers' tendencies. Outfield positioning. How to hit in various situations.

"I talk to Cal, I talk to Tim Hulett, I talk to Harold Baines, I talk to lots of people," Voigt said. "Some people say that I ask too many questions. But when you're like me, you can't rely on your native talent. You better listen and learn. You better know how to play the game."

There was a time when Voigt was indeed something of a natural. As an outfielder at LSU, he made the All-College World Series team in 1987. In his first year in the Orioles' organization, he won the New York-Penn League batting title.

But then there were two shoulder operations, a couple of years at .226 and .254, and a marked slowdown of his rise. He finished the 1987 season in Hagerstown, but still was there in early 1991.

He finally jumped to Rochester that year, reincarnated as a player who could play all three outfield positions, first base, third, even catcher. Given a shot this year by Oates, who loves versatility, Voigt has played four positions without committing an error, pinch run, pinch hit, batted .300 and displayed a grasp of fundamentals and a knack in the clutch.

"Jack has made a mark here," Oates said. "He has proved to me what he showed in the spring, which was that he knows how to play the game. There are a lot of things I don't have to tell him."

To call him The Un-Natural is going too far. He does have some tools. A bat with some pop. Decent range, speed and throwing arm. "He doesn't do anything great," Oates said, "but does a lot of things well."

It's never easy on the fringe of the roster, of course, but Voigt's productive season probably has guaranteed him a spot on the team next year. The good news is that no one appreciates it more.

"I gave my All-Star tickets to a college teammate, a guy who is now a stockbroker in New Orleans," Voigt said, "and the guy called me afterward and said, 'I'd give you a million dollars to trade for a day and stand on the field in a uniform.' I know how many people aspire to this. I'm just glad I made it. I hope I'm still here talking to you in 10 years. Either way, I'm going to enjoy every minute."

And continue asking questions?

"Absolutely," he said. "I'm not taking anything for granted. How could I?"

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