Alexander's audition becomes hit O's backup may earn long-sought trade

March 13, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Manny Alexander sat with his feet propped up, a towel resting between the back of his head and the metal edge of his locker, his eyes fixed on a Spanish soap opera playing on the clubhouse television set.

There are two interesting images here: The one on screen of former "Chips" star Erik Estrada, whose career has taken another strange turn, and the one of Alexander, whose career has taken another strange turn.

Alexander's baseball life has been something of a soap opera since he signed with the Orioles as a non-drafted free agent in February 1988. Born and still residing in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Alexander has gone from being a prized catch in the minor-league system to trade bait.

He is batting .432 (16-for-37) despite going 0-for-4 yesterday against the Montreal Expos. He has committed just one error while shuffling between second base and shortstop. He has kept quiet and played hard.

Where will all of this get him?

Out of Baltimore, if he's lucky. It would be a monumental upset if he were around on Opening Day, especially with league sources saying the club is having serious discussions with the New York Mets about a trade. Sources also said the Phillies have expressed interest in Alexander, a career .206 hitter who turns 26 next Thursday.

"There's always the option that he makes this club as the utility infielder," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone, "but right now, we think what's best for Manny Alexander is to get the chance to play on a more regular basis somewhere else. You know, contrary to popular belief, sometimes there are people in baseball who do what's best for the player."

This isn't so much a spring training for Alexander as an audition.

"That's why I work hard now, to show people I can play a little bit," he said.

He's hitting a lot. Alexander's average has been above .500 for much of the exhibition season -- it took a 1-for-4 effort in Monday's win over the Atlanta Braves to bring it below that mark -- but he's used to this kind of spring breakthrough. He showed the same offensive punch last March, then got to the plate only 68 times, batted .103 and drove in a paltry four runs, none after June 11.

He also was miscast as an emergency pitcher in a blowout loss in Texas, an experimental left fielder in Chicago, and an ill-timed pinch runner for Cal Ripken in Baltimore. There may not be a good time to pinch run for Ripken, but leave it to Alexander, the perpetual shortstop-in-waiting, to be the unfortunate chosen one.

He wanted out then, and the sentiment hasn't changed. But rather than sound off, as he did a couple of times last year, Alexander is just going about his business. He's being patient at the plate, and patient with the organization.

"Wherever you go, you want to play every day, and I came here to play," said Alexander, who made his Orioles debut in September 1992, the same year Baseball America voted him among the top 10 infield prospects in the minor leagues. "I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing right now. I'm playing more, and when you do that, the next day you're ready to go. I'm showing people what I can do when I play more.

"If they keep me, there's nothing I can do about it. I'll just do the best I can. I know I'll have more chances to play this year."

That's because his position of choice, shortstop, no longer is Ripken's domain. How ironic that the year Ripken moves over, Alexander likely will move on to another team.

"I feel more excited when I play shortstop. I feel more relaxed, more comfortable," said Alexander, who won a Gold Glove in the Dominican Winter League before last season, besting, among others, Seattle's Alex Rodriguez.

He made six highly publicized starts at shortstop for the Orioles in July, went 1-for-18 with nine strikeouts, and went back to the bench.

"The guy deserved to be an everyday player three years ago," Malone said. "Unfortunately for him, he's been behind one of the greatest shortstops of all time."

He hasn't been behind in the count very often this spring. He's not hacking away at balls three feet out of the strike zone. And when pitchers are forced to give him some heat, he's scorching it.

"It all comes down to swinging at good pitches," said hitting coach Rick Down. "For whatever reason, he sees the ball well early and he's staying off the marginal pitch. He's seeing a lot of fastballs. He's getting good pitches to hit and he's putting his best swing on it.

"It's a matter of being disciplined at the plate and staying focused. As long as he can do that, he's got good mechanics, he's got talent. He should hit. He gets himself out more than they get him out. But it's tough to play the game when you go three or four weeks without having any at-bats."

It appears the game's about to become easier for Alexander.

"If he gets traded, it's very good for him," said Carlos Bernhardt, the scout who signed Alexander. "He's still young, and he'll get a chance to play."

And that's pretty much all he's ever asked.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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