Being comfortable is relief to Benitez Young Oriole overcoming physical, cultural pains

March 30, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles reliever Armando Benitez says he feels great this spring, and not just the right elbow, which landed him on the 60-day disabled list last season. Or the knees, which ached so badly.

"Especially my mind," he said, with a look sweeping across his face that supports these words.

It's a mind that's free of any worries over his physical condition. And it's a player, still so young at the age of 24, who appears more relaxed and confident.

Especially in the clubhouse.

The language still presents some problems for Benitez, a native of Ramon Santana, Dominican Republic, who was signed as an undrafted free agent seven years ago. But rather than withdraw, he's seeking help from teammates and letting his personality show through.

"I feel more comfortable," he said. "I know sometimes people think I have a bad temperament. No. Everybody's different. Some people don't talk a lot."

And others talk too fast, which can make it more difficult for Benitez to understand them. That's when a friend like reliever Alan Mills comes in handy.

"A lot of people take for granted a person coming over to this country and what it's like. It's tough," said Mills, whose cubicle is next to Benitez's. "When I went to play winter ball, the people in Venezuela went out of their way to help us. I try to do the same thing."

Said Benitez: "It's like if you go and play in the Dominican. Nobody speaks English. It would be very hard for you. You want people to understand you and nobody understands. You feel like you're in a prison. 'Let me out of here.' "

In some ways, he broke out during the postseason last fall, both on and off the field. He was placed in some high-pressure situations, especially in the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, when he stood toe-to-toe with slugger Albert Belle. And he won more battles than he lost.

"His mound presence and composure have taken off," Mills said.

"My mind is clean to think about baseball," Benitez said. "Everything in my mind is baseball and to work hard."

Each January morning back home, he would toil under the watchful eye of Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles scout who signed Benitez and has been like a father figure to him.

Bernhardt persuaded Benitez to stop playing winter ball after two weeks and rest his tired body, then report for his morning program. Bernhardt would yell out a count -- Three balls, two strikes -- then instruct Benitez to unleash a slider or changeup, something other than the predictable heat, 95 mph and vulnerable.

"Two years ago, I could only throw fastballs and sliders," he said. "Everybody knew what I threw. Everybody waited."

Said Bernhardt: "At the major-league level, if they know you throw hard, they're only going to look for your hard stuff. You have to work both sides of the plate, change speeds. If he keeps doing that, he's going to have success."

He has, striking out former Oriole Sherman Obando with a 3-2 slider. He's turned the trick other times this spring, as well.

"He can go to a Plan B, where he never had a Plan B before," said Mike Flanagan, who was in camp as a pitching instructor.

Said Bernhardt: "I told him the most important thing is to trust himself."

He's also taking better care of himself, and his career. "He comes in very early, works in the weight room, does his running, rides the bike, anything he needs to do," Bernhardt said.

Said manager Davey Johnson: "What I'm happy with is he's working hard to stay in baseball shape, to be a better athlete, not just a strong right arm. If you have any weakness in your legs or stomach or the rest of your body, it puts more pressure on your arm. We encouraged him to get in better shape, and he's done that. You don't want to let a guy get in the habit of being lazy and just relying on his arm. If he can't push off and he can't get to first, what good is he?"

Benitez, who was limited to 18 games last season because of a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, will begin the year as a setup man and an alternative if left-handed closer Randy Myers struggles.

There had been speculation that no matter how impressive his numbers were this spring -- two earned runs, 14 strikeouts and a .190 opponents' batting average in 12 innings -- Benitez might not begin the season with the club because he's not out of options and the Orioles have a wealth of pitching compared with last year. But with Johnson's announcement that he'll take 13 pitchers north, Benitez is secure.

"You're supposed to go with your best players," Johnson said. "Why would you send one of your best players down to Triple-A? Depth is one thing, but you need to have your best with you."

Said Benitez of the earlier rumors: "In a situation like this, there's nothing I can do. If you're in my position, you throw good, you do your job, and one day somebody tells you, 'Hey, you're going down.' How do you feel? You feel terrible, no? But I don't make the decisions."

Instead, he's making tremendous strides.

"He's settling down," said veteran reliever Jesse Orosco. "He's still a little raw, as far as what's going on in the clubhouse, the culture, stuff like that. But it'll come.

"He has all the talent in the world."

And he's having the time of his life.

"Armando's becoming a big-leaguer," Flanagan said.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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