Van Slyke case open and shut

April 20, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Andy Van Slyke stepped into a batting cage for the first time as an Oriole yesterday shortly before noon, Elrod Hendricks was the only member of the front office or coaching staff watching him take his swings.

Manager Phil Regan was over by the dugout, warming up to throw batting practice in a few minutes. Batting coach Lee May was elsewhere on the field. General manager Roland Hemond was nowhere in sight.

Regan made it over in time to watch Van Slyke's next two sets in the cage, but let's just say that there wasn't exactly a crush of management interest.

Several hours later, after watching Van Slyke single in two at-bats, play the outfield for four innings and look perfectly healthy in the Orioles' 6-3 defeat of the Twins, Regan smiled when asked to appraise Van Slyke's performance.

"He looked healthy to me," the manager said. "And he'll probably get better every day we see him."

Not exactly the sound of doubt.

There is nothing more tedious than a lousy mystery, one in which the ending is obvious by the third page of the book or the first 15 minutes of the movie. But a lousy mystery is precisely what the Orioles are staging with this Last Temptation of Andy Van Slyke.

The final result of his "tryout" has been obvious from the moment the club announced Tuesday that Van Slyke finally was coming to camp. He is going to sign a contract for $700,000 and start in center field -- at the very least as part of a platoon with Damon Buford, and probably more often than that.

Yet the Orioles continue to insist they need to see him play for three or four days before signing him, so they continue to let him dangle, without a contract.

Why they're proceeding with this charade is unclear.

Maybe they're trying to show support for Buford and Curtis Goodwin, the two young players being supplanted by Van Slyke. (It's the least they could do after using their supposed "confidence" in the two players as leverage against Van Slyke, driving down his price in the process.)

Maybe they're trying to make Van Slyke's agent, Dick Moss, sweat even more. (Moss was Marvin Miller's right-hand man and is one of the architects of the new league scheduled to begin next year. Not exactly a beloved figure in management circles.)

Maybe they're just having fun playing hardball with someone for a change after getting beaten to Jack McDowell, John Wetteland and David Cone.

Oh, sure, their concerns about Van Slyke's bad back, which bothered him last year, are real enough. Van Slyke called their reservations "legitimate."

But they were ready to give Van Slyke $1 million a few weeks ago without making him go through a tryout, so their sudden concern rings a little false.

Van Slyke, to his credit, was handling the situation good-naturedly yesterday.

"I'm trying to keep my pride out of the way," he said.

He spoke to reporters for 30 minutes after coming out of the game, and showed that, whatever the state of his game or his future, he'd lost none of the zip on his famous comedic monologue.

Q: Getting to play again after sitting out eight months, did it come back to you quickly out there, like riding a bicycle?

A: "I've gotten hit by a car twice while riding a bicycle, so you'd better use another analogy."

Q: Getting a hit in your first at-bat must have felt pretty good, huh?

A: "It was an accomplishment. But then, making contact was an accomplishment. Hitting the ball forward was an accomplishment."

Q: You seem a little angry or depressed by having to go through this. Are you?

A: "Well, it's uncharted waters. Christopher Columbus was probably a little melancholy, too."

His melancholia should fade when the Orioles pronounce themselves satisfied with his health and his skills and sign him to the contract to which his agent has orally agreed.

Take tomorrow in the office pool.

At that point, the Orioles' outfield situation will have gone from confusing to clear in less than a week. Jeffrey Hammonds is playing every day without any pain or swelling in his right knee, so he appears set for right field. And, now, Van Slyke is set for center. Brady Anderson, Van Slyke, Hammonds. Period.

To get Van Slyke into the middle of that blueprint, the Orioles played hardball, no doubt about it. Overplaying their interest in Goodwin as a major-leaguer in '95 gave the kid a false sense of hope, which wasn't so nice, but business is business and they ultimately got the center fielder they wanted. And Hemond definitely outmaneuvered Moss by taking the Orioles' offer off the table last week; Moss came crawling back for $300,000 less.

So, now we're down to this charade of a tryout, this lousy mystery with an obvious ending. The only way Van Slyke doesn't sign is if he sprains his ankle today or goes down in the back or gets hit by a car for a third time riding his bicycle. And that isn't going to happen. You know it. We all know it. But whoever is writing this mystery isn't finished, so we have to wait a few more days.

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