Choice right, if Bonilla's attitude is

March 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Bobby Bonilla is a DH. Some news flash, huh? Davey Johnson said it himself the day he took over as Orioles manager: "He's no Gold Glover wherever you put him."

Johnson will open the season with Bonilla as his DH because that gives the Orioles their best possible offense and defense. It is absolutely the right decision. The only question now is how Bonilla will react.

He sounded less than thrilled discussing the plan yesterday, but chances are, he'll get back in the field soon -- even though the Orioles would be better off if that never happened.

Indeed, this move is not without risk. Bonilla, a National Leaguer for nine seasons, has never been a DH. For someone with so much energy, it might prove a difficult adjustment.

Poor little ol' Johnny Oates never would have risked offending a player of such stature. Shufflin' Phil Regan might have, but then would have gone back to Bonilla the first time one of his position players went 0-for-4.

Johnson sees the bigger picture.

Part of the idea here is to develop left fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, 25, and right fielder Tony Tarasco, 25 -- an admirable goal for an organization that too often loses sight of its future.

Another part is to enable Johnson to employ his best late-inning outfield defense without substituting for one of his most dangerous hitters -- an important consideration in a league where games often turn into slugfests.

Clearly, managing this $48 million diamond will require equal parts skill, flexibility and ego massage. Johnson won't commit to anything long-term, saying only, "This is the way I think we need to go early."

Heck, his best defense is probably Mike Devereaux in center and Brady Anderson in left -- but Anderson will open in center, while Devereaux figures to platoon with Tarasco.

Yes, even championship teams break in young players -- see Atlanta last season, with Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones. Devereaux turns 33 on April 10. Hammonds and Tarasco have far greater upsides, and it would be foolish to waste their speed at DH.

Third base? B. J. Surhoff showed steady progress this spring, and Johnson expects him to keep improving. Surhoff will be average at best, but he's his own worst critic. He works hard, and badly wants to succeed.

That leaves Bonilla without a position. Johnson explained the situation to him Wednesday, and took great pains to be diplomatic yesterday, several times telling reporters, "This is not a knock on Bobby."

It is, and it isn't.

Who cares?

As long as Bonilla doesn't pout, it's best for the team.

"I'm a little disappointed about it," Bonilla said yesterday. "But the fans in Baltimore took to me really well. My way of returning their kindness is to do whatever it takes for Davey. I know he'll look out for me. I'm not happy, but I'll do whatever it takes to win."

So far, so good -- and lucky no one booed him at Camden Yards last season, huh?

Bonilla, 33, need not worry -- he isn't going to be the next Harold Baines. Surhoff could be a bust. One of the outfielders could get hurt. And even if none of that happens, Johnson still figures to use a rotating DH.

So, how long will this last? Bonilla figures "the first month, maybe a month and a half." It might depend on his hitting as much as anything. Bonilla never complained about changing positions -- he just wanted to play.

But becoming a DH?

That's a different challenge.

"Absolutely -- I've never just only hit before," said Bonilla, who played all three outfield positions and first base as a rookie with the Chicago White Sox before getting traded to Pittsburgh in 1986.

How will he handle it?

"I have no idea," Bonilla said. "I'm going to call up Eddie Murray before the season starts, I know that."

Just imagine Murray, Bonilla's former teammate with the New York Mets, as the "Dear Abby" of baseball.

"They're dogging you, Bobby," he might tell Bonilla. "I'm not going to tell you how to be a DH, because you shouldn't be a DH."

Or . . .

"Who says you can't play the field, the media? Don't talk to the media. Don't talk to anyone. It's like I told Albert . . ."

Or . . .

"Ah, Bobby, don't sweat it. Just treat it like you're pinch-hitting four times a game, and relax between at-bats. You get your hits, everything will be fine."

That, of course, would be the best advice.

Really, this isn't a big deal.

Tarasco and Hammonds will be the eighth and ninth hitters, giving the Orioles a potentially dynamic bottom of the order.

How big a steal was Tarasco? Last spring, he was traded for Marquis Grissom. This spring, the Orioles got him for Sherman Obando.

Tarasco, a left-handed hitter, knows he probably will be in a rotation with Devereaux, Hammonds and possibly even Bonilla. He's just thrilled to get the chance.

"The door's open to playing every day, and that's what I want," Tarasco said. "It leaves it in my hands. There's not any politics. I've just got to show them."

The idea is to win.

Bobby Bonilla should know that.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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