SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- Brian DuBois walked by Paul Carey on Saturday and stared at the No. 88 jersey still hanging in his locker.
"Not yet?" DuBois asked. "You're not going to do it?"
It was the burning question of camp.
When would Carey give No. 88 to Rene Gonzales?
The answer finally came yesterday, when Carey walked onto the field at Twin Lakes Park wearing No. 77, with Gonzales strutting like a peacock in his old No. 88.
Phew, glad that's over with.
Peter Angelos bought the Orioles a new first baseman, a new third baseman, a new starting pitcher and a new closer.
Alas, he couldn't buy them two No. 88s.
All those millions, and a uniform number threatened to divide the ballclub. Now manager Johnny Oates can rest easy. Carey caved in. The season is saved.
For a while, things were looking pretty dicey -- only two players in baseball history had worn No. 88, and suddenly they were on the same team.
The dispute might have sounded ridiculous, but as a seven-year veteran, Gonzales seemed offended that a rookie wouldn't part with the number he invented.
"I've had it for eight years," he said. "I made that number. I came up with it. Nobody had ever worn it in the history of the game."
So, is he happy with the outcome?
"What do you mean, am I happy?" the infielder shot back. "It's my number. He did the right thing."
No, Gonzo did not find this funny. In fact, when it appeared Carey might play hardball, he started to issue threats.
L "If he tries to work it," Gonzo huffed, "it could get ugly."
Well, Carey didn't "work it" -- he demanded nothing in return for the number, although Gonzo indicated he would compensate him later, saying, "It'll all be handled privately."
Gonzo gets his old number back.
Brady Anderson gets center field.
The roommates own this camp, eh?
"I respect him," Carey said yesterday, looking as frazzled as a Tonya Harding operative. "It's his number. He wanted it. He had it before me."
Indeed, Gonzales wore No. 88 with the Orioles from 1987 to 1990, pronouncing it "consistent and infinite," whatever that meant. He then kept it for one season in Toronto and two in California.
Carey arrived during his absence, appearing in 18 games for the Orioles last season. "No. 8 worked for Cal," the first baseman said last spring. "Maybe twice that is lucky for me."
So, there you had it.
Two planets colliding.
This went on nearly a month. The Orioles signed Gonzales on Feb. 3. Soon after, general manager Roland Hemond called Carey, and assistant GM Frank Robinson called Gonzales.
Ah, the life of a baseball executive.
"Tell Rene I'll give it to him if he makes the club," Carey informed Hemond, using his Stanford education to figure out that his own chances weren't too good against Rafael Palmeiro.
Gonzales, meanwhile, told Robinson that he'd personally call Carey. But Robinson never heard back from him, and with spring training approaching, assigned Gonzales No. 87.
"If he complains about it," Robinson told equipment manager Jimmy Tyler, "tell him to come see me."
Actually, Gonzales tried to contact Carey through an intermediary -- Anderson.
Why did Brady volunteer?
"Because I knew him [Carey]," he said. "See how much good it did? We're such good friends, he didn't even return my phone calls.
"I called his dad a week before we were scheduled to go down [to Florida]. He said he [Carey] had already left for spring training.
"I said, 'Gonzo, you're in trouble. Carey's already working out with the pitchers. He's going to do everything to make sure he's got the number."
And that's how it stood, until yesterday.
The pressure started mounting on Carey after the veterans reported Thursday. Players would approach him from behind, tap him on the shoulder, and say, "Hi, Gonzo" -- "in front of him, on purpose, trying to stir it up," Carey said.
Now, if Gonzales wanted to be difficult, he could have waited Carey out, then reclaimed No. 88 after the rookie was demoted. But Carey performed a noble act, and baseball etiquette demands that Gonzales now reciprocate.
Mike Pagliarulo bought Mark Parent a cowboy hat last season when Parent agreed to give up No. 13. Rickey Henderson reportedly paid Turner Ward $25,000 to give up No. 24 in Toronto.
"Is he wealthy?" Carey asked last week. "I'm a businessman. Eighty-eight don't mean that much to me."
He was lying, of course.
"It was my first big-league number," Carey said in a weaker moment. "My only big-league number."
It's Gonzo's number.
Now, and forevermore.