Narron may survive O's hot box

March 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- You say you want to hear the third base coach jokes going around? OK, OK.

Why was Mike Ferraro called "Doc"?

Because he sent more people to their death than Jack Kevorkian.

What was Cal Ripken Sr. really saying when he held up both arms?

Don't shoot, I'm unarmed!

How many people does it take to coach third for the Orioles?

Two. One to do the job and one to invent the explanations.

All of which brings us to the question of the day: Why would a perfectly sane, normal person such as Jerry Narron agree to leave the safe harbor of a job as Johnny Oates' bench coach to take over stewardship of Birdland's Bermuda Triangle, the third base coach's box?

As a bench coach, he was so obscure that he could take his wife and five kids out to dinner in peace, at least as much peace as you canhave taking five kids to a restaurant. He was so invisible that he could have tap-danced across the infield in front of a sellout crowd at Camden Yards and no one would have seen him.

As a third base coach, however, he'll be about as invisible as Brady Anderson at the mall. He'll be raw meat for the talk-show lions. No job in the game attracts more criticism without the potential forkudos. "You're never right in the eyes of the fans," Oates said. "Either you do what you were obviously supposed to do [and the run scores] or you blow it."

Said Narron in his slow, syrupy North Carolina drawl: "Yes, it can be a pretty tough job that way."

A pretty tough job, period. You will notice what has happened to Ferraro and Ripken at the end of the last two seasons.

So, why did Narron say yes when Oates asked? Why did he

willingly add layers of stress to his life?

Narron, 37, laughed when asked the question yesterday. "It's pretty simple, really," he said. "It gets me back in the middle of things, back closer to the action. It gets me back on the field. It's the next best thing to playing."

Narron was a light-hitting (.211) backup catcher who played in 392 games for the Yankees, Mariners and Angels, and was still playing in Rochester as recently as six years ago. Like Oates and a lot of other career backup catchers, he knew the game better than most, just couldn't play it better.

After retiring he spent four years managing Orioles farm clubs in Frederick, Hagerstown and Rochester, then joined Oates' staff last year. In the minors, of course, the manager also coaches third.

"It's really the only thing you can do to train for the job, get out there and do it," he said. "I've been out there a lot. I wish there was something else I could do to get ready. If there was, I'd be doing it all day. But it's basically an experience thing. An instinctive thing."

A rough thing on the ego, too, at least potentially. Narron was the first person in an Orioles uniform to hear boos this spring when he held a runner at third the other day with the top of the order comingup. Oates said later that Narron had made the right call, but the boos were July-strength and, no doubt, sure to return, no matter how well Narron does.

"I know the deal," Narron said, "and I'm no different than anyone else, I don't enjoy being booed and criticized. But I also have seen some of the best third base coaches in the game get booed, so I know it's coming. And anyway, I'm harder on myself than anyone else. When I make a mistake, the boos of 46,000 people aren't going to make me feel any worse."

Basically, as much as any factor, a coach's capacity to last in the job comes down to his ability to withstand second-guessing. Ripken was not fond of it. Ferraro didn't mind as much, but the Orioles felt he made too many mistakes. Narron would seem to have the perfect makeup.

VJ "Yeah, I feel like I can handle any kind of stress," he said. "I have

five kids. And the oldest one is 11."

That's classic Narron right there: He was born, raised and still lives in a small town in North Carolina, and he has a twinkle in his eye and a dry Southern wit. A third base coach can't have a much more valuable asset than a sense of humor.

"Good luck this year," someone said to him the other day.

"Thanks," he said, smiling, "I'm going to need it."

But Oates warned: "Don't be fooled by that accent and that smile. He's a lot tougher than he lets on. I'll always remember at Rochester in '88 [when Oates was managing] when we weren't going good and I called a meeting and asked the team who was going to lead us, and Jerry stood up even before I was done. Of course, he went 0-for-20 after that. But it still showed his guts. And that's what you need in this job. A third base coach is just a high stakes gambler. Jerry is going to do just fine."

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