O's Key eyes instant replay Pitcher seeks to repeat Yanks saga, but quicker

February 17, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jimmy Key is in familiar surroundings. He reported to this very same Fort Lauderdale spring training complex after he signed a four-year contract with the New York Yankees in December 1992. Made his usual quiet entrance. Probably said the same things.

He went to the Yankees that year because the money was right and the team was moving in the right direction. He went there because he wanted to get back to the World Series. It all went pretty much as planned, right down to his solid, late-season contribution last year and the Yankees' first world title since 1978.

Now, he would like history to repeat itself, just a little quicker and in a different uniform.

"That's the reason I came over here," Key said. "I knew what kind of team [the Orioles] had. Everybody wants an opportunity to win."

Key is a winner. He established himself as a front-line starting pitcher in Toronto, and moved on after the Blue Jays won their first world title in 1992. His stay in New York was complicated by recurrent arm problems, but it ended the same way, in a shower of champagne in late October.

It ended the same way in the off-season, too. History always seems to be repeating itself with Key. The Yankees -- like the Blue Jays four years earlier -- had concerns about his durability and were hesitant to bring him back under the kind of terms he desired.

So he signed a two-year contract with the Orioles and traded places with left-hander David Wells, who signed a long-term deal with the Yankees.

"If they had given me two years, I would have gone back to New York," Key said, "but for some reason, George [Steinbrenner, the owner] didn't want to give me two years. That's all right. I answered some questions for myself.

"I was able to pitch in the postseason. I proved that I could play two more years, and I didn't want it to be one year each in two places."

It had to be a contending team. It had to be a two-year deal. It almost had to be the Orioles, but it still helped that the general manager (Pat Gillick) was the guy who brought Key to the major leagues in Toronto and watched him develop into the kind of pitcher the Orioles needed to complement right-handers Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Rocky Coppinger at the core of their rotation.

"Pat's track record is about winning," Key said. "Peter Angelos brought him in to win and my association with him in Toronto was good. I could see there was an opportunity to win again, and I thought they might need a veteran pitcher who has been through the wars."

There was one other big reason why the Orioles were a perfect fit. Gillick is not afraid to take a chance.

Key, 35, underwent rotator cuff surgery two years ago and struggled with shoulder stiffness during the first half of the 1996 season. He has had arm or shoulder surgery four times in his career, so he is quick to say that his good health is not a given.

"It's a gamble, I guess," he said, "but it's a two-year deal, not a four-year deal."

Manager Davey Johnson wasn't concerned. The day that Gillick suggested Key as a possible free-agent acquisition -- sometime in October -- Johnson expressed no reservations.

"I think I said something like, 'Don't call me back until you get him or you need some help getting him,' " Johnson said. "As well as he pitched last year coming off arm surgery, I figured the arm strength would only be better this year."

The Yankees weren't willing to take that chance, but Key has nothing bad to say about his former team. He gave them a few good years. They gave him a chance to get that second World Series ring.

"Last year was very big for me," he said. "I knew early in spring training that I would be pitching the first half of the season for the second half. I was fortunate that the club stood behind me. I think we all kept the big picture in mind and focused on the late season and the postseason."

The first few months were a struggle, but Key went 9-5 from July 1 on and peaked in the playoffs, recovering from a rough first inning to defeat the Orioles in the pivotal third game of the American League Championship Series.

"That was the high-water mark of last year," Key said, "considering the importance of the game. I was down 2-0 after two batters, but I kept it together."

He obviously impressed Gillick and Angelos, and he answered some important questions for himself. That one game -- and the impact it had on the Yankees' world title run -- was worth all of the repair work and rehab.

"I had a plan, and I stuck to it all year," Key said. "I didn't get frustrated. That was the important thing. At the end of the year, I was throwing as well as I had all year, and my arm felt good. If you include the postseason, I pitched close to 200 innings."

Now for the new challenge of pitching regularly in cozy Camden Yards, where the ball gets into the stands more often than almost anywhere else.

"I've pitched well there," Key said. "My stats are good there, but it's not a great place to pitch in. There aren't many great places to pitch in the American League. I was probably in the best place in Yankee Stadium, but you just have to realize that you're not going to win a lot of 2-1 games in this league."

The Orioles plan to win more of those kind of games this year. Gillick and Johnson willingly traded some offensive punch for a more versatile lineup, but Key doesn't agree with the widespread notion that last year's Orioles team was somehow limited by its awesome power.

"To me, the American League is all about scoring runs," he said. "It doesn't matter if you do it by stealing bases or hitting home runs.

"To me, you build your team around your ballpark, and it's a home run ballpark, so why not build a power-hitting club?"

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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