FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Experiencing the worst moment of 1997, Ray Miller looked up from his locker to witness the first hopeful sign for 1998.
Less than an hour had passed since Armando Benitez capped Game 6 of the American League Championship Series by throwing a misplaced slider that Cleveland Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez torqued into the temporary right-field bleachers at Camden Yards. Fernandez's unlikely home run became the only run in the Orioles' excruciating, 11-inning loss.
The marathon ended the Orioles' hopes for their first World Series appearance since 1983. Benitez suffered two of the four losses. After Fernandez's blast, he flipped his glove skyward and took several steps toward the home dugout, giving away his disgust.
Benitez had lost the last game of the '97 season with his second-best pitch to a hitter incapable of catching up to his fastball. Lesser failures once led him to pack his bag after a loss and vow he was returning home to the Dominican Republic. He once left the mound in mid-inning during a troubled winter-league appearance. Even last season Benitez, the Dominican Strongman, could became the Invisible Man after a poor outing.
So what now?
Instead of bolting, the inconsolable Benitez doubled over at his locker. But when the clubhouse opened for the media postmortem, he straightened and was waiting for all questions. Three lockers away, his next manager noticed.
"That showed me a lot. Here's a young guy who had failed in a very pivotal situation, and he stood up for himself. He didn't hide. He didn't make excuses. I think Armando grew up a lot that day," Miller recalls.
Miller now sits in the manager's chair formerly warmed by Davey Johnson. Benitez, at 25 the youngest player expected to make the Opening Day roster, now holds at least a share of the closer's role he has long coveted. Four months after last postseason crashed, the success of each man in his new job depends largely on the other.
"The fear in the past was how Armando would handle adversity. I think he showed last year he can do that. Everyone fails at times in this game. It's how you respond to failure that sets you apart," pitching coach Mike Flanagan says.
Closer job open
Orioles pitchers and catchers arrive at spring training today a year older and an All-Star closer lighter. November's surprise defection of Randy Myers to the Toronto Blue Jays created a vacancy that no one pitcher will fill. Benitez, however, has first dibs on the largest share, given that he throws very hard, throws right-handed and throws fear as his fourth pitch. Left-hander Arthur Rhodes and lefty import Norm Charlton will complement him. It is the most compelling experiment this spring.
"I'm not glad Randy left. He talked to me; he helped me," Benitez says. "I learned some things from Randy. But he took the opportunity to go to Toronto. It's up to me to take the opportunity I have here."
The Orioles should look the same on the field this season. The addition of free agent Joe Carter as designated hitter represents the only lineup adjustment. As the spine of last year's pitching success, the bullpen will receive a chiropractor's touch.
Last season, the bullpen saved a major-league-best 59 games and blew only 10 chances. Myers was named team Most Valuable Player, but Rhodes and Benitez also deserved serious backing. Now, their contributions will become more apparent.
Miller emphasizes that Benitez will not be a stand-alone closer. Rhodes represents a left-handed complement, and Charlton, if healthy, provides an experienced stopgap. Miller doesn't even like the term "closer" in this situation, insisting "no one is a closer until they've got 40 or 50 saves behind them." Primarily a starter as recently as 1995, Rhodes has two career saves. Benitez has 15 saves in 136 major-league appearances. He has certainly been projected for the role -- Benitez's only four starts since 1991 came during a brief rehab assignment at Bowie in 1996 -- but his age, Myers' presence and his sometimes halting development have caused the club to make a gradual commitment.
"I'm intentionally not going around calling this or that guy 'the closer,' " Miller says. "Once you do that, there's always a question about whether you're staying with a guy or coming off a guy. We're looking at a little different situation this year."
Myers provided order. He pitched as many as two innings only twice and typically started the ninth inning in save situations after Benitez, Rhodes and the rest of a remarkably flexible bullpen brought him the lead.