Conine hopes the payoff is playoffs

Former Royal willing to trade playing time for shot at postseason

April 05, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

New Oriole Jeff Conine left some playing time behind when he parted company with the Kansas City Royals on Friday, but he was more than willing to make that trade-off for the chance to return to the playoffs this year.

"Absolutely, you want to go to a place where you have an opportunity to win," said Conine, who was acquired from the Royals for pitching prospect Chris Fussell. "I'm going from a place where I was going to play every day to a place where I'm going to play a role. It was easy to sacrifice that for a chance to win."

In reality, he may not be making that big of a sacrifice. He'll be in the starting lineup when the Orioles open the regular season against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays today at Camden Yards. He'll be the designated hitter against left-handed pitching, and he'll be prominent on the depth chart at first base and in the outfield.

Manager Ray Miller is happy -- make that relieved -- to have a veteran player with a good bat on the roster in case of a key injury. The Orioles will keep promising Willis Otanez at the major-league level because he is out of minor-league options, but the arrival of Conine has turned him into a bit player.

Miller didn't hesitate when he was asked why he was so quick to play Conine over Otanez, who got off to a great start during the exhibition season only to tail off badly the past two weeks. Conine alleviates a variety of roster concerns with his steady offensive production and his ability to play well at more than one position.

The fact that he's just a couple of years removed from the experience of playing on the 1997 Florida Marlins' world championship team is just a nice bonus.

"Conine hit .320 this spring," Miller said. "He's a career professional hitter who hits .310 against left-handed pitching [during the past five seasons]. I also know that Will Clark is not going to play 162 games at first base."

Conine, 32, isn't going to play 162 games this season either, but he has done it before. He is one of two players (Albert Belle is the other) currently on the Orioles roster who at some point ranked second to Cal Ripken among active players for consecutive games played.

Though he spent time on the disabled list twice last year, he bounced back this spring and appeared ready to play regularly in Kansas City.

The Orioles can use all the durability they can get after a 1998 season in which the club was ravaged by injuries. Conine has seen the club only from afar but seems confident that 1999 will be a big year in Baltimore.

"Last year, I thought they had a great team, but they had a lot of bad luck," Conine said. "They had a bunch of guys get hurt. Health is the key to any team. You got probably the best offensive player in the game [Belle] over the off-season. When you've got that in your lineup, it's a pretty good lineup."

When you're coming from a struggling small-market team, it's got to be nice to walk into a clubhouse full of established stars.

"The feeling and the attitude is different," Conine said. "I went from the World Series in '97 to fighting for respectability. It's a big change."

The Royals won't be going anywhere this year. They are expected to move high-priced, veteran first baseman Jeff King at the first opportunity in a continuing effort to stockpile young, cheap talent for the future. Conine can only sympathize with the guys he left behind.

"It's reality," Conine said. "You feel sorry for them. Kansas City is a great town with a good ballpark. I enjoyed playing there, but this is an opportunity to come to be in the hunt for a playoff spot."

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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