If the faces are fresh, it must be spring for O's

February 19, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- It is a rite of spring that has become particular to baseball. Newcomer Sid Fernandez was trying to put together names and faces. Lee Smith and Mark Eichhorn and Rich Gedman were doing the same. Through the miracle of free agency, they have been made new again and so has their new team.

The Orioles roster has undergone a transformation since the team was last together. The organization has certainly had the courage to change, but the first day of spring training at Twin Lakes Park clearly illustrated the mixed blessing of player movement.

In one corner of the newly refurbished Orioles clubhouse, Smith was holding court with the media, explaining how baseball's all-time save leader came to be an Oriole insteadof a Cleveland Indian. Down another row of lockers, right-hander Ben McDonald was wondering how Rick Sutcliffe became a St. Louis Cardinal instead of an Oriole.

"I'm still depressed about it a little bit," McDonald said. "He was our leader both on the field and in the clubhouse. Somebody else is going to have to take on that role now. He's the guy I've been closest to in pro baseball. It's tough for me, but things like that happen in baseball. Friends are here one year and gone the next."

McDonald knows the score too well to complain. The same system that forces a Sutcliffe or a Gregg Olson to move down the road also allows a player such as McDonald to more than double his salary after a sub-.500 season. The same system that temporarily forced a future Hall of Famer such as Smith to consider retirement also provided an avenue for the Orioles to re-stock the roster for a run at the Toronto Blue Jays.

Still, the absence of two popular players could not go unnoticed in the first hours of the 1994 baseball season. Sutcliffe was extremely popular among the Orioles young starting pitchers. Olson was well-liked and respected by all of the relief pitchers.

"I was just sitting by Gregg's locker," right-hander Todd Frohwirth said, "and I almost started crying."

Not everyone was so melodramatic, but almost every returning member of the 1993 pitching staff voiced some level of regret that the club was unable to come to terms with either Olson or Sutcliffe.

"I'm happy that they are going to get a fair chance someplace," right-hander Mike Mussina said. "I just wish it would have been with us."

The flip side is just as obvious. Smith is a steady closer who doesn't have the shadow of a serious elbow injury hanging over his career. Fernandez is coming back from an injury-shortened season, but has some outstanding career numbers. Eichhorn also is a solid veteran who adds depth to the pitching staff.

"I feel good about what we've added to the club," Mussina said. "We have established players all over the field."

Smith signed a one-year contract late in the off-season, but he might turn out to be the key acquisition. The Orioles turned to him after it became apparent that Olson would not be coming back, hoping that he has one more big save total left in his 36-year-old arm.

There apparently was some doubt around baseball. Smith negotiated with several teams, but briefly considered retirement when the soft market for relief pitchers left him hard-pressed to get a guaranteed one-year contract. The Orioles came through with a deal that will guarantee him $1.5 million, plus more in incentives, but that doesn't seem like much for the only player in baseball history to register more than 400 saves.

"It [retirement] did come up in my mind when I didn't have an offer," he said. "I don't think it would have bothered me a whole lot. I'm just glad Johnny Oates and the Orioles gave me an opportunity to get a fresh start."

The Indians were close to signing Smith when the Orioles made their push two weeks ago. The Houston Astros also showed interest, but did not make a substantial offer.

Smith had 46 saves last year, but there was widespread concern that his velocity was on the decline. He gave up 11 home runs in 58 innings, which some clubs took as proof that he would not be able to keep putting up big numbers.

"I know I don't throw as hard as I did when I was 20 years old," Smith said, "but it's not just how hard you throw it. It's where you throw it. When I was throwing 97 miles an hour, there were still some people who hit the ball a long way when I didn't throw it in the right place.

"I admit I had a mediocre year for myself, but Rod Dibble and Dennis Eckersley didn't have the seasons they wanted to have either."

Fernandez didn't have the season he wanted to have in 1993, but that was because of a knee injury that limited him to 18 starts. He arrived in camp ready to pitch and apparently happy to be back in a competitive situation after a nightmarish '93 in New York.

"It feels a little strange, but I'll get used to it," Fernandez said. "Joe Orsulak told me that he had fun here and that they had a great bunch of guys here. I wanted to stay in the National League, because I know everybody over there, but I'm the kind of person who thinks that what's to be is to be."

That's also the attitude that manager Oates took when he greeted Fernandez, whose weight has occasionally been an issue. If he came in above his listed weight of 225, Oates didn't seem concerned.

"I don't want to know," he said, laughing. "It's probably in the neighborhood of too much, but I'm not going to make an issue of it. It's always been there, and he's always pitched well."

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