Leaving '95 in the dirt Chris Hoiles: The Orioles' veteran catcher believes 1996 will be nothing like last season's unproductive, injury-filled disaster.

February 17, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles planned for this training camp like a president anticipating an election year. Weeks and months of preparation.

Hoiles started looking ahead to the 1996 season about the same time Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games. "I'll tell you what," Hoiles said in early September of 1995, "I'm going to stay in Baltimore and work out like crazy this off-season."

Which is, for the most part, exactly what he did. There was a trip to see family in the Midwest around the holidays, and Hoiles took some time to hunt in Idaho. Beyond that, Hoiles trained at Camden Yards and at Ripken's home in Reisterstown, wanting to augment his chances for a successful 1996 season, and erase the memory of his awful 1995 performance.

Hoiles had thrown with a friend during the strike, but nothing that prepared him for the accelerated workouts that started when players reported to training camp last season. The very first day, Hoiles warmed up in the morning, caught several bullpen sessions with pitchers, took batting practice, then practiced his throws to second base, firing as if it were midseason.

Too much. The next day, the top of his right shoulder ached. It would be nearly four months before Hoiles was pain-free again.

"I just tried to do too much too early," said Hoiles, who turns 31 on March 20. "The fact we only had three weeks for spring training was in the back of your mind. When you're used to six weeks of spring training, and you cut it in half, it's almost like you have to do twice as much twice as fast."

Hoiles missed almost all of the shortened spring training because of his sore shoulder, but as Opening Day approached he insisted that he would be ready for the start of the season and that he could swing a bat effectively.

But the injury affected his offense and defense. Hoiles couldn't extend the bat on his swing without feeling pain in his shoulder, and attempting to throw out runners became an ordeal.

"As an athlete, you try to block out that type of injury," he said. "Once you step into that batter's box or strap on that gear, you try to forget everything. You try to forget, but it [the pain] was there constantly. . . . You'd swing through a certain area, and you'd feel weakness, and you tried not to swing in that area again."

Some teammates believed Hoiles' soreness to be so bad that unless he had an excellent chance to throw out opposing base-stealers, he would hold the ball or drop a pitch to the dirt in front of him; better this than making a weak throw and tipping off advance scouts and opposing teams to his trouble. "I don't think it ever got to that point," Hoiles said, disagreeing. "When you get in a game and you see a guy stealing, your first reaction is to throw a guy out."

It didn't help, either, that backup Matt Nokes had a notoriously poor throwing arm. Hoiles played almost every game early in the season despite his shoulder trouble. Manager Phil Regan approached a reporter on a couple of occasions to ask if he could refrain from writing about the condition of Hoiles' throwing arm.

But anybody checking the box scores could figure out something was amiss. Hoiles went 2-for-9 in April (.222), hit .211 in May, and bottomed out in June, getting just nine hits in 67 at-bats for a paltry .134 average.

Hoiles searched for answers beyond his shoulder trouble. Maybe he was pressing, he thought, because he had signed a five-year, $17.25 million contract before the season. Maybe Hoiles, recently married, was just having a hard time adjusting to that. Maybe it was just mechanical trouble with his swing. Hoiles wondered. But always, it came back to the pain in his shoulder.

Hoiles pulled a hamstring after the All-Star break and went on the disabled list, an injury he now regards as a blessing of sorts. Hoiles, out of action, rested his shoulder completely, and soon the pain was gone. He went on to hit .291 after the All-Star break, and improved his average almost 80 points -- from .171 on June 29 to .250 at season's end, with 19 homers and 58 RBIs. Hoiles batted .305 the final month of the season, and already he was looking ahead.

"That was the first year where I've ever experienced any major difficulties," Hoiles said. "I've always started spring training healthy, I always started the season healthy.

"I tell you, it was a year-long struggle to find something good in what was going on. I'm one of those who likes to try to look to the positive, but there really wasn't a whole lot [of positive] to dwell on. It was all negative."

With Hoiles, and the team.

"But I think that's why I ended the season on a good note," he said. "I stayed positive at the end, and I knew I was better than what I was showing. I couldn't wait for that season to end so we could start over."

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