Oldies prove golden in 2nd-half run

August 18, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles' leading hitter is 36. Their second-leading hitter is 39. Their most dependable reliever is 41.

Evidently, some of these geezers can still play.

Jesse Orosco doesn't look ready to retire. Eric Davis and Harold Baines are at the top of their games. And suddenly, Jimmy Key might be reborn.

The Orioles aren't getting older; they're getting better. They're 28-8 since the All-Star break, 6 1/2 games behind the wild-card-leading Boston Red Sox, winning every night at Bingo.

Baines was at it again last night, delivering a two-run, bases-loaded single to give the Orioles the lead in their 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins.

Is there an AARP MVP?

Baines' .406 batting average with runners in scoring position leads the American League, as does his .375 average with men on base.

Not bad for a player who turns 40 next March, and hit his first career homer off Jim Palmer at Memorial Stadium in 1980.

This isn't to recommend that the Orioles plan another scouting mission to Jurassic Park -- they need to get younger next season.

Still, to cite age as a major factor for the team's first-half problems would be too simple an analysis, especially the way older players are carrying the club now.

Orosco has allowed one run in his past 18 outings. Davis is coming off a club-record 30-game hitting streak. Baines has 45 RBIs in his past 57 games.

Then there's Key.

Still battling shoulder pain, he delivered an eighth-inning bridge from Scott Erickson to Armando Benitez last night, and has now worked 3 2/3 hitless innings in relief.

"He might be like Jesse, and pitch until he's 42 years old," manager Ray Miller said of the 37-year-old left-hander, who has worked as a starter almost his entire career.

Clearly, the Orioles went too far by opening the season with only four players under 30. Some of their veterans got hurt (Key, Scott Kamieniecki). Some were over the hill (Joe Carter, Norm Charlton, Doug Drabek).

You can't guess right every time, but the front office did an admirable job of purging the deadwood. The older players who remain are specialists for the most part, excelling at specific roles.

Davis, 36, has received most of the attention, recovering from colon cancer to produce the longest hitting streak in the majors this season.

But who was his role model as a DH?

The ageless, expressionless Baines.

"I fed off his makeup, especially when I was DHing," Davis said yesterday. "I tried to emulate some of the things he was doing. Watching his approach helped me a lot. It's like having the best teacher at your disposal without having to go to college."

Davis' hitting streak began the day after Baines went on the disabled with a strained left hamstring. Since returning, Baines is 11-for-34 with two homers, two doubles and 11 RBIs. It is obvious the Orioles need to re-sign both players.

"If you have a Harold Baines or Eric Davis [on the bench], you can really dictate the way a game goes without them even getting into a game," Miller said. "A [manager] stays with somebody a little bit longer than he should because he's worried about Baines getting in the ballgame."

PTC Baines is batting .327 -- 30 points above his career average -- and his 48 RBIs in 226 at-bats translate to the third-best ratio on the team. Yet, he already dismisses 1998 as a "down year," citing his injury.

Miller, naturally, disagrees.

"I don't think I've ever seen a more professional person than Harold Baines," said the manager, who first saw Baines as the Orioles' pitching coach from 1978 to '85.

"He played against us for three years in right field in Chicago. About the third year I looked at the stats, he was hitting about .350 off us with home runs I didn't even remember.

"That was in the era when everyone was starting to be flashy, pumping their fist in the air. Harold was up there before they even announced his name. And if he hit a home run, he ran around the bases and got off the field real quick.

"You kind of didn't pay any attention. Then you'd come back the next year and say: 'He's got six home runs off us? I don't remember that.' "

And now?

"Same way," Miller said. "In Minnesota, they brought in [left-hander Eddie Guardado]. He pitched to [Brady Anderson] and got him out. Baines was on deck.

"Harold, he just kind of looks at me and tilts his head -- 'You going to hit for me or not?' I said, 'No, go get 'em.' He hits the ball out of the park. He comes in, doesn't say anything, just shakes hands with everyone and sits down."

Both Miller and Davis marveled at Baines' use of video -- he'll arrive at 3 p.m. to study tape of that night's starting pitcher. Knee problems have limited Baines to DH duty almost exclusively since 1992, enabling him to focus solely on hitting. He studies so diligently, Miller said he could become "one of the best hitting coaches in the history of the game."

But not just yet.

To stay in shape, Baines lifts weights and hits the exercise bike and treadmill. He saw former teammates Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinski increase their off-field work as they grew older. He said he wants to play "as long as I'm productive."

Baines. Davis. Orosco. Key.

Pass the Geritol with that creatine.

These geezers can still play.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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