O's are ready, to a point

September 09, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

That faraway look Orioles manager Johnny Oates sometimes sports betrayed him yesterday at lunch when his wife Gloria asked what preyed on his mind. His response, of course, was baseball-related.

"What I was thinking was this is like a back-to-back DL assignment," said Oates, who lives in Colonial Heights, Va. "We're already at four weeks. I'm not sure a starting pitcher can go much more than three innings. You could start a guy on a limit of say 50 pitches, maybe 60, depending on how much each guy has been throwing."

Throughout the players strike, baseball's eighth work stoppage in 23 years, Oates said he organized a plan of action that assumed a resumption of the season. Each week, he took an eraser to the previous week's plan.

He has a new plan.

"Let's say they settle it Friday at 6:30, in time for 'SportsCenter,' " said Oates, who predicts a settlement will arrive tonight. "They will tell the players to be back on Monday and the games will start the following Monday. All of the pitchers will throw some Monday. Half of them will be back out there on Tuesday. The other half will be out there Wednesday. Pitchers will throw batting practice [once each] Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That way, everybody will have thrown three times."

Which would be three more times than Orioles reliever Alan Mills has thrown to a catcher during the strike.

Mills, in the midst of renovating the home he recently purchased in Florida, was helping a friend lay tile yesterday, hours before playing his first game for a softball team. Mills tried to join an adult baseball league but was ineligible because a rule excludes players who have played professionally in the past six months.

"It's hard for me to find somebody to throw to off a mound," Mills said. "I've been tossing here and there, but you can't find a guy who's going to catch you. I just moved to a new area and I don't know anybody. I've been playing catch with a guy who's in high school just to keep my arm loose."

In contrast, Orioles No. 2 starter Ben McDonald has been throwing from a mound twice a week at his alma mater, Louisiana State University.

"I'm trying to stay as ready as I can be," said McDonald, who lives in Denham Springs, La. "It's tough to be in the pitching shape I left in, obviously. I don't feel like I've lost a whole lot, but I know the sharpness of my pitches isn't what it was when I last pitched in New York. I'm doing everything I can to stay sharp. It's still not the same."

Unlike some players on non-contending teams, McDonald sees value in resuming the season.

"My main concern is that we have enough time to catch Cleveland and get in the playoffs," McDonald said. "I would prefer it not be only a week of games, then the playoffs. If we had three weeks, maybe adding a week to the regular season, it would give us a more realistic chance to catch Cleveland."

Under the scenario Oates envisions, two weeks of games will be played.

The Orioles would resume their schedule with three games, then have a day off. Oates said he would consider pitching Mike Mussina and McDonald in the first two games, adhering to strict pitch limits, then bringing them back on three days' rest.

In effect, games in the pennant stretch would be played somewhat like spring training exhibitions, including the emphasis on youth.

"If we come back, it's going to be weird," McDonald said. "Guys in Triple-A are going to play a big part in who wins their division. They just finished up and are as sharp as they've been all year."

The Orioles would bank heavily on left-hander Arthur Rhodes, sent to Triple-A Rochester when the strike started. Reliever Armando Benitez, pitching for Bowie, could become the Orioles' closer if Lee Smith returns in spring training form.

Other pitchers on the 40-man roster who likely would be called upon to lend a hand include Bowie's Scott Klingenbeck and Rochester left-handers Brad Pennington and possibly Rick Krivda and right-hander Mike Oquist.

Center fielder Damon Buford, shortstop Manny Alexander and catcher Greg Zaun of Rochester likely would join the Orioles for the mini-pennant stretch. Utility man Jack Voigt, nicknamed "Perfect" even before he went 5-for-5 for Bowie, undoubtedly would be reassigned to the major leagues if the season resumed. Rochester outfielders Mark Smith and Jim Wawruck also are possibilities, as is Paul Carey. Sherman Obando is out for the year with a hairline fracture of the shin.

Bowie right-handers Jimmy Haynes, Joe Borowski and Brian Sackinsky have pitched well enough to help, but none are on the 40-man roster. The Orioles would have to remove players from the 40-man roster to make room for them.

Reserve catcher Jeff Tackett summed up the mood of the Orioles' players. He wants to return to work, but doesn't second-guess the union's strategy.

"Who wouldn't want to go back to their job and start playing again?" said Tackett, a Cockeysville resident. "But if this is the way it's got to be, this is the way it's got to be."

Tackett's salary of $162,500 ranks him near the bottom on the Orioles' salary chart.

"I've already thought about going to work," Tackett said. "Just to make some money, get out of the house some. We've talked it over, but we haven't talked about anything specific yet."

The strike has been a long one, but not long enough for McDonald to fall back into any of his dangerous old habits. He has not wrestled any alligators.

"I've been pretty good," he said. "I haven't gotten into any trouble. I've pretty much just been fishing and working out. Just wasting time in between workouts. I went to my place in Mississippi to do some farming and bush-hogging. I planted some food plots for the deer so they get nice and fat for harvest. I've gotta say I harvest 'em. The animal rights people go nuts if you say kill or shoot, so I always say harvest."

If a labor settlement is not reached soon, consider the 1994 baseball season harvested.

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