FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles began spring training with three experienced catchers. Four days later, they're down to two.
Persistent hip and lower back pain that followed Chris Hoiles into last off-season apparently has ended his days behind the plate as anything more than an emergency catcher, according to the nine-year veteran and Orioles manager Ray Miller.
The decision was made during a conversation in Miller's office yesterday morning after Hoiles experienced discomfort while warming pitchers on Saturday.
Hoiles, replaced by Charles Johnson as the team's starting catcher, admitted thinking that continued work at the position would be "counterproductive" if resulting discomfort inhibited his hitting and transition to first base.
"It's pretty much the same thing as last year," Hoiles said. "The pain isn't as bad, but the same things seem to aggravate it."
Hoiles said that even serving as a backup catcher, a role likely requiring 40 starts, would be too much for his back. The admission means the club is virtually certain to retain Lenny Webster, who has re quested the organization trade him if it can't guarantee him substantial playing time. A pending free agent, Webster played in a career-high 108 games in 1998.
There's also a remote chance that Hoiles' unavailability to catch might complicate his position on the team. Miller offered no guarantees about his roster spot, saying, "If he's here, Hoiles is my third catcher, backup first baseman and designated hitter. He has another year on his contract, but that doesn't dictate how we do things."
Hoiles, who turns 34 next month, is on the final installment of a five-year contract that pays him $3.7 million this season.
The Orioles possess little flexibility on their elderly bench, where they retain only one extra outfielder, Rich Amaral, and 40-year-old left-handed DH Harold Baines, who has no other position.
"I'd like to think I could strengthen the team from the right side to the point where they'd want to keep me around," Hoiles said. "But they're the ones who decide that."
Hoiles admitted a sense of relief over the abandoned chore of catching. Last season he experienced difficulty straightening from a crouch and sometimes found it hard to throw through the pain. Regular heat and stimulus treatments failed to solve the condition. Meanwhile, many erroneously blamed his marginal arm for his ability to stop only 21 percent of opposing base stealers.
Hoiles said that he required more than a month to recover after catching 83 games last season and that the team still does not know the source of his pain. Saturday's discomfort, which flared when he reached across his body for a pitch, reinforced his desire for a position switch.
"It's not that it surprised me [that the pain] came back," Hoiles said. "It surprised me it came back so soon."
Hoiles insists there is no reason why he can't handle responsibilities as a backup first baseman and platoon DH. He worked yesterday at his new position alongside bench coach Eddie Murray.
"It doesn't bother me to hit; it doesn't bother me to swing," said Hoiles, who has played 18 major-league games at first base after beginning his professional career there. "I went out and took 20 minutes of ground balls this morning and it didn't bother me one bit. Pretty much the whole workout it didn't bother me to do anything. Then again, I wasn't doing any squatting. That's the only thing that affects it."
Though Webster caught more games last season, Hoiles had been considered the Orioles' starter at the position since shortly after coming to the club in a 1988 trade that sent outfielder Fred Lynn to the Detroit Tigers.
The Orioles had prepared themselves for yesterday's announcement by trading for four-time Gold Glove winner Johnson last December. Johnson is expected to catch 120-130 games with Webster handling the rest.
"Looking at it realistically, I don't know where I fit behind the plate this year anyway. It's really not a big deal," Hoiles said. "With Charles, he's going to catch the majority of the games. You've got Lenny behind him. Down here, there isn't too much to prove behind the plate. If they really needed me in a pinch it wouldn't take too long to get it back."
Hoiles produced 15 home runs and 56 RBIs in 267 at-bats last season. Always prone to slow starts, he managed 39 RBIs in 45 games after the All-Star break when at-bats became more plentiful.
"It's different here this spring when you've come in for the last eight years as the No. 1 catcher. This year you come in really not knowing what's being asked of you," said Hoiles, who Thursday called himself "blind" to his role.
"You've got to put pride aside and say whatever you can do for the team to help it win is OK. That's how I've looked at it so far. If I'm swinging the bat well and playing well, they're going to find a place for me."
Miller insists that he will give Hoiles plenty of at-bats this spring, a contrast to last March when days off allowed him only 41 at-bats. Hoiles will likely appear in almost every exhibition but he acknowledges his catching gear will probably be replaced by a first baseman's mitt on most trips.
"And," he added, "don't forget my bats."
Pub Date: 2/22/99