Secure Voigt hardly at rest with himself

March 10, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Most of the Orioles took the winter off. They worked on their golf swings. They bought new cars. They did whatever it is that 25-year-olds do when they earn more than 25 schoolteachers put together and don't have to get up until noon.

But what did Jack Voigt, the hardest-working man in show business, do on his winter vacation?

Played ball. Fought a batting slump. Got ripped in the papers. Worried about dodging election-related violence in Venezuela. Oh, and got shaken awake one night by an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale.

Ah, easy street.

"What can I say?" Voigt said yesterday, smiling. "Baseball is my life."

It's not hard to tell. Voigt has played nonstop for almost three years now, with winter ball and instructional leagues serving as the bridges between seasons.

Putting it another way, he turns 28 in a couple of months, and, basically, he hasn't had a day off since he was 25.

Give that man a union handbook.

"If there's one thing that's true about my career," he said, "it's that I can't take anything for granted."

If he were so inclined, this was the winter to start making his life easier. After his fine rookie season in '93, in which he hit .296 and played his way into Johnny Oates' favor, his spot on the '94 roster was pretty much assured, no matter how many millions Peter Angelos spent.

But instead of relaxing even a little, Voigt underwent a hernia operation after the season, rehabbed ahead of schedule and suited up for Zulia, a Venezuelan League team based in Maracaibo.

The Orioles didn't ask him to go, as they sometimes do with young players. Voigt wanted to keep playing. He felt he needed more at-bats after spending '93 in utilityland.

"When you're not the most talented player, as I will readily admit I am not, you have to keep working," he said. "Besides, I'm not married yet, so I don't have anything keeping me at home. And I like toplay ball."

He had played for Zulia the prior winter in a season made memorable mostly because of a failed coup attempt that kept everyone off the streets and halted the baseball season for a few days. There was no such trouble this winter. A set of elections passed without incident.

"I have a friend in the state department in Washington who I met at the Orioles' fantasy camp," Voigt said, "and I monitored the situation through him. You had to have an emergency plan in case things started getting ugly."

But the only non-playing ugliness he encountered was the earthquake that rattled his apartment late one night. He is still shaking his head.

"I'm a Florida boy; I'm used to having a week to get ready for a hurricane," he said. "I was on the seventh-floor, too, and you know the building wasn't built to [earthquake] code."

For the most part, however, he was able to concentrate on baseball. Thanks to his strong '93 he arrived with a reasonable amount of fanfare for a player with 152 major-league at-bats, but he started slowly and wound up hitting only .230. He was his usual useful self afield, playing all three outfield positions and first base, but the press still was tough on him.

"I could read enough to tell what they were saying, and it wasn't too nice," he said, laughing. "That was OK. I was brought in to do a job, and if I wasn't doing it, I was fair game. It was still a useful winter. I got in the work that I felt I needed to get in."

Now he is back in the Orioles' camp with his customary blend of humor and humility.

"How are you?" someone asked yesterday.

"I'm still here," he said, as always, the answer taking on a particular significance for a player who had 2,200 minor-league at-bats before cracking the bigs.

You could build an argument that his roster spot is being dangerously squeezed by the return of Lonnie Smith and the presence of a handful of outfield prospects, but it's simply not so. Just ask the manager.

"Jack Voigt is part of my ballclub," Oates said. "You never know what might happen, but let me put it this way: It's real hard for me to imagine him not being here. I like him too much."

Oates has a weakness for players who can play two or three positions, such as Tim Hulett and Rene Gonzales. Voigt is the ultimate example.

"I can use him anywhere except pitcher and catcher, and he probably could catch if he had to," Oates said. "He can pinch run, pinch hit, put down a bunt. And he does them all well. They don't call him Roy Hobbs for nothing."

The simple fact is that there is always a place for a player who can catch, throw, hit and play the game properly.

Said Voigt: "After what I did last year, I would think that I'm coming back."

No matter what happens, Voigt's string of nonstop baseball days figures to end finally after this season. He is getting married in December to a woman he met in Venezuela in 1992.

"There won't be any winter ball next year," he said, "I guess."

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