Orioles' Baines takes aching legs in stride

February 28, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- It is a new year and Harold Baines is explaining about his old knees, which apparently has become a permanent part of his spring training routine.

The left one required surgery last October. The right one has been repaired three times. This is the professional cross that Baines has to bear, but he arrived at Twin Lakes Park last week ready to begin his 14th major-league season . . . and looking for no quarter.

Baines does not say a whole lot to begin with, but if you're looking for any woe-is-me expression of the unfairness of it all, you came to the wrong place. He came to grips with his physical limitations long ago.

"Because there are people who are worse off than me," Baines said. "That's just what I have. I'm one of the lucky ones. There probably are a lot of players with more talent who are not in a position to play."

In one sense, Baines, who will turn 35 before the season starts, has been fortunate. He has fashioned a long and impressive career despite the chronic knee problems, only once going on the disabled list for a knee-related injury in his first 13 seasons. But there are those who wonder just how good he might have been if he had not spent most of his career playing with pain.

Was a Hall of Fame career cut off at the knees?

"Who knows how much more Harold could have done if he had had healthy knees his entire career?" said manager Johnny Oates.

Baines doesn't seem to care about that kind of stuff. He may be the most low-key player in the game, the kind of guy who hits a game-winning home run and then wonders why all the reporters are crowded around his locker afterward.

The knees are a non-issue as far as he's concerned. They have turned him into a full-time designated hitter, but they have not prevented him from being one of the most respected hitters in the game.

"It would be nice to play without pain, but that's impossible," Baines said. "I learned to deal with that a long time ago. It [his left knee] is a little weak, but I'm able to do everything I normally do except run."

He is making no pretense of trying to maintain the same training regimen that aggravated the problem a year ago. He ran too much during the first week of spring training and ended up with so much swelling that he had to have the left knee drained. This year, he does his conditioning work on a stationary bicycle.

"Sid Fernandez made the same mistake this year," Oates said. "He didn't want anyone to think he was a prima donna, so he went out and ran with everybody the first day. His knee swelled up a little, so we told him to follow Harold around and do the same things that he is doing."

Baines doesn't know how much he'll be able to play this year. He appeared in 118 games last year, his lowest total since the strike-shortened 1981 season, but only a handful of the games he missed were because of knee soreness. He spent time on the disabled list, but that was with a rib-cage strain that kept him out of action for 22 days in May.

If the quantity wasn't there, the quality never was in question. Baines batted .313, which would have ranked him eighth in the American League if he had accumulated 22 more plate appearances. He had 416 at-bats and might be available to play more this year, but Oates probably would be satisfied with another 20 home runs and 78 RBIs.

"He'll go as long as his knee holds up and there is no risk of blowing it out," Oates said. "I think there were a few times last year when you could see in his swing that he was hurting. Hopefully, he'll be much healthier this year and we won't have to worry about it."

It will be up to Baines to keep the manager informed about his availability, and Oates says he is comfortable with that arrangement.

"Harold is pretty honest," Oates said. "He doesn't play hero and he doesn't beg off, either. He's a guy I feel I can trust. That's important because I need to be able to plan ahead. I know he's going to need some days off, and I don't want to come up on a day when he needs a day off and we're facing a guy he's 8-for-12 against."

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