With game, career stalled, Devereaux eager for a restart

September 26, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Tampa, Fla. -- Mike Devereaux slaps at the ball and pounds it into the ground. It has been more than six weeks since he took a real swing, and it shows.

Herschel, a chocolate Labrador retriever with outstanding range, dutifully runs it down and proves that man's best friend is also his best critic. He returns with his tail fanning the warm Florida air, obviously happy for the odd circumstances that have put both of them here.

If only Devereaux could be so carefree. The season-killing baseball strike has brought him home, and it also has set him adrift. He, and hundreds of players like him, are facing an uncertain winter.

This is supposed to be the time when everyone begins to look forward to the off-season and the leisurely pursuits that come with it, but the off-season started two months too soon and it is threatening to last indefinitely. No one knows exactly how it will play out or whether anyone will play at all in 1995.

Devereaux, coming off the most disappointing offensive season of his career, figured to spend a fitful winter anyway. His future with the Orioles was very much in doubt, and his value on the free-agent market had dropped right along with his batting average. Now, he doesn't even know if there will be a free-agent market.

"It's tough," he said. "Everybody is baffled by this. All we can do at this point is wait and see what is going to happen. With no [labor] contract, nobody even knows who is a free agent."

The 31-year-old outfielder has six years and 45 days of service time, so he would be an unrestricted free agent under the old rules and under the terms of the labor proposal that the owners are expected to implement later this year. But his status also depends on what the Major League Baseball Players Association does in response.

The only thing that Devereaux seems reasonably sure of is that, whenever baseball begins doing business again, the Orioles will not make a serious attempt to re-sign him.

"I didn't want the season to end," Devereaux said, "but I left Baltimore thinking that if it did, I had probably played my last game there . . . not that I wanted it that way. I definitely enjoy Baltimore, but you want to play where somebody wants you. Ballclubs plan for the future, and I was given the impression that I wasn't involved in their future."

That impression began to surface even before a string of injuries turned Devereaux into a shell of the player who drove in 107 runs in 1992. The Orioles gave Brady Anderson a long-term contract, but seemed to begrudge Devereaux the large salary he was able to command after his career season two years ago.

Nothing happened this year to alter the perception that Anderson soon would be replacing him permanently in center field. Devereaux came into spring camp nursing an off-season ankle injury and made matters worse when he slammed face-first into a chain-link fence in the exhibition opener.

His luck didn't improve during the regular season. He suffered a severe hamstring strain and -- just when it appeared that he was about to turn his season around -- was struck squarely in the face by a pitch. He finished with a .203 average, nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"He just never really got untracked," said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond. "With all of the injuries, it just wasn't a good year for Mike. He will tell you that."

Whispers off the field, too

The past two years have been a constant struggle to replicate that terrific 1992 season and to overcome a seemingly endless series of setbacks, both personal and professional. He missed a significant chunk of the '93 season with an impact injury to his shoulder and chest, but speculation about his offensive struggles often turned to whispers about his failing marriage.

Devereaux heard that talk and says that he went through a

difficult time emotionally, but he still refuses to use it as an excuse for anything that happened on the field.

"I can't say that I need somebody in my life to do well," he said. "It's great to have someone in your life, but I think last year I just had a lot of bad breaks. It wasn't a good season."

Even so, it ended too soon. Devereaux still could have had two months to dig his way out of it and to prevent a disappointing set of numbers from going into baseball's statistical register. Now, it will be hard to get anything close to the kind of contract he could have commanded a year or two ago.

If and when the players and owners finally resolve their differences, Devereaux may have to settle for a relatively modest one-year contract and prove himself all over again.

"I know I have had some unfortunate things happen to me this year, but I don't want to be paid on the basis of my performance this year as to a long-term deal," he said. "If I take a one-year contract, I can play well and help myself out for the next few years."

Back to workout room, past

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