If Orioles practice, can spring be far behind? An essay: They're shagging ground balls and swinging bats in Fort Lauderdale. Hang on, icy Baltimore, baseball is coming. And this could be the best team in years.

February 18, 1996|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Elrod Hendricks was the first Oriole on the field yesterday.

Breaking the stillness of a sunny, chilly morning at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, Hendricks, the club's longtime bullpen coach, popped out of the dugout at 9 o'clock and walked across the bright green grass carrying an equipment bag.

He dropped the bag by first base, zipped it open and slowly rolled a dozen balls in to the outfield.

He was preparing for a workout, following a routine he has used for many years.

The workout, in this case, was the first major session of the Orioles' spring season. Pitchers and catchers for three hours.

Baseball season was beginning.

No kidding.

With the remains of yet another big snowfall still crunching underfoot in winter-weary Baltimore, the summer game probably seems more of a fantasy than a reality.

But it is indeed stirring to life in all its simple pleasures, offering perhaps the surest sign yet that Baltimore's snowiest winter does have an expiration date.

The '96 season not only promises to be the first in three years undamaged by labor strife, but also promises a return to glory for the Orioles, whose new general manager, Pat Gillick, has reshaped the club into one of the best in the American League.

With accomplished new players such as Roberto Alomar, B. J. Surhoff, David Wells and Randy Myers added to the old nucleus composed of Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles are consensus favorites to win the American League East for the first time since 1983.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It's just February, and Camden Yards is one big snowbank back home.

The Orioles don't have to win to satisfy their public right now.

They just have to show up, play catch, walk on the grass, hit a foul ball.

Baseball's gentle noises have never been more welcome.

"It feels a little better than usual to get going," said catcher Chris Hoiles, who has spent the winter digging out along with everyone else.

"I'm sure people are happy to hear about baseball."

Any arguments?

Didn't think so.

Yesterday, the game was played in its most elemental forms.

New Oriole manager Davey Johnson tacked up a workout schedule on the clubhouse bulletin board.

Six activities, including pickoff practice and other fundamentals, were scheduled on three diamonds.

Even though a cold front had pushed temperatures into the 30s, accompanied by a chilling north wind, some 300 fans were in the stands around the main field when the players began loosening up at 10 o'clock.

The gates were open, admission was free, rosters were selling for a dollar and concession kitchens were up and running, selling hot dogs for $3.

The smell of onions drifted through the concourse below the stands.

The crowd would double in size by the end of the workout.

The stadium is far from a tropical idyll, located in an industrial neighborhood next to a small airstrip.

But no one was complaining yesterday about the roar of airplane engines or the startlingly cold weather.

"No complaining allowed," said Orioles trainer Jamie Reed, another survivor of the snowy winter.

After limbering up with 15 minutes of throwing, the players split into two groups and worked out on the extra fields behind the left-field fence.

While one group practiced pickoff plays, the other practiced having the pitcher cover first base on a ground ball hit to the first baseman.

Sam Perlozzo, the Orioles' new third base coach, hit grounders to a rotation of first basemen.

The pitchers waited in line behind the mound for their turn to cover first.

Each time Perlozzo hit the ball to begin a play, the catcher shouted "Get over!"

Minor-league pitching coach Moe Drabowsky watched from foul territory.

When the undeniably roundish Wells galloped to first and caught a ball to complete a play, Drabowsky gently poked fun at him.

"Quick as a cat!" Drabowsky said.

There was a pause.

"Yeah, a big ol' fat cat," another player shouted.

Wells took it with grace and a smile.

"Hey, I'm just trying to get in my running here," he said.

On the main field, a sign painter drove his car onto the warning track and began painting a new sign.

Funeral parlor? Dog track? Hotel? Too soon to tell.

Back inside the empty clubhouse, country music was playing softly on a radio, Bobby Bonilla was talking on a pay phone and clubhouse attendants were cleaning up.

The two workout groups moved through several more drills before winding up together at the main field, where the catchers went through a round of batting practice.

Watching from the grass behind home plate was sportscaster Jim McKay, who owns a small piece of the team and has a condo near here.

"I love that sound," McKay said as he watched Hoiles smack balls into the outfield.

Baseball season truly had begun.

The workout ended with a coach hitting pop fouls into the wicked wind for catchers to run down and grab.

The crowd oohed and ahhhed.

Mussina stopped on his way to the dugout to sign autographs, causing the first fan frenzy of the new season.

"Hey, ease up!" shouted one fan squashed against the railing.

Fat chance.

Davey Johnson also signed for a while, as did Hoiles.

Finally, the stands emptied out.

"Good workout," Johnson said back in his office.

The forecast on the radio was calling for 80-degree temperatures by Wednesday.

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