Williamson faces up to long odds

March 09, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mark Williamson knows better than to take anything in baseball for granted. That's why, despite the better part of seven years as a stalwart in the Orioles' bullpen, he understands his current situation.

"There aren't many spots open," he said. "There are going to be some guys who are not going to appreciate going back [to the minor leagues].

"They feel they have accomplished all they can there -- but the funnel gets real small from Triple-A to the big leagues. And that [going to the minors] is not an option for me -- either I make it or I get released.

"I don't have the luxury of saying, 'I'm going to get ready for April 4 [Opening Day].' I might not get that far. I came to camp ready to go.

"Potentially, this is a very good pitching staff. For the first time sinceI've been here, I can see depth, even at Double-A and Single-A. Before, you didn't see too many guys from Double-A in the big-league camp. There were mostly older guys -- but now you see guys like [Rick] Forney, who's got a real good arm."

For the second year in a row, Williamson spent most of the off-season as an undeclared free agent. He was among those who were not tendered contracts by the Orioles.

What he found, again, was there was some interest in his services, but no guarantees. With limited options, he opted to take his chances and stay with an organization where he was known.

"When you're a free agent, you start from ground zero, the bottom of the ladder," Williamson said. "There isn't much of a market for middle relievers. The way it is, the only people who can command [large] contracts are power hitters, starting pitchers and closers. You're not going to see many utility players or long relievers making $1 million."

It was only two years ago that Williamson was able to command that kind of a salary. Last year and this, if he survives the Orioles' final cut, he'll earn about one-third of that.

But at this point in his career, that is not a prime factor. He will be 35 in July, and the objective is to prove he can still pitch effectively in the big leagues.

"I'm not complaining," he said. "Three hundred thousand dollars is a pretty good living."

By the numbers, Williamson is staring at stiff competition. On the surface, there are nine pitchers -- Williamson, Todd Frohwirth, Mark Eichhorn, Brad Pennington, Barry Manuel, Mike Oquist, Brian DuBois, John O'Donoghue and Kevin McGehee -- competing for three spots.

Eichhorn, one of the Orioles' many free-agent acquisitions, is generally considered to be a lock, which makes for even longer odds. But to Williamson, they are only numbers.

"Everybody seems to be looking at it as a battle between me and Froh," said Williamson. "But I don't feel I'm competing against anybody but myself.

"I've got to open some eyes. The door of opportunity is not wide open," said Williamson. "You've got to look out for yourself, so if you get a job, you have to take it.

"I had gotten to the point where I had to get to spring training. Theoffer the Orioles made last year, they kept on the table. I talked to other teams, but what I had to do was get to spring training and show the Orioles and the other 27 clubs out there that I can pitch.

"It's a lot easier to prove your case in spring training because teams are out there scouting every game."

When he first joined the Orioles, Williamson benefited from being one of the young candidates. "They were in a transition period and wanted to go with younger guys, and they could pay me $62,500," he said, referring to the minimum salary at the time].

"It helped me that I was around experienced guys like Bod [Mike Boddicker], Flanny [Mike Flanagan] and Scotty [Scott McGregor]," said Williamson. "They saw me throw, and told me not to change anything.

"All I heard were positives, and I just concentrated on doing what I could do and not worrying about somebody else. You can't go into this thinking, 'If so-and-so does this, then I've got to do this or that.' If you get into that kind of thinking, it just messes you up."

So, at this stage of his career, Williamson is not concerning himself with competing with an individual, whether it be a good friend such as Frohwirth or a kid from Double-A such as Forney. The best thing Williamson has going for him is a workmanlike record.

"I feel good," he said. "I feel like I'm throwing well. And I felt like I threw the ball well last year. Numbers-wise, it wasn't a very good year, but sometimes pitching can be a matter of a little luck."

But Williamson, who pitched two scoreless innings in his first spring appearance Sunday and is scheduled to go again today, will need more than luck to earn a spot on the Orioles' pitching staff. He has to make a persuasive argument, prove himself again during the exhibition season.

He has to persuade the Orioles that last year's numbers were deceiving and that he's still capable of providing a lot of quality relief innings. He has been through this before, but that was seven years ago, when there were options.

This time, there are no options.

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