O's could use a few more like Bordick

April 29, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles acquired him to replace one of the great shortstops in major-league history, and never regretted it. Not in his first season, when they won the AL East and advanced to the league championship series. And certainly not now that Mike Bordick is one of their best players, and getting better still.

He's stronger this season, and as he nears his 34th birthday, quicker and faster, too. Former pitching coach Mike Flanagan noticed it immediately in spring training, watching Bordick run from first to third. At first, Flanagan thought he was imagining things. But Bordick worked all winter to create such an impression, and it was no mirage.

Some thought the Orioles overpaid when they signed Bordick to a three-year, $9 million contract before the 1997 season. It turns out they got a bargain. Bordick's $3.2 million option for 2000 will vest if he makes 500 plate appearances this season, but his worth to the club is significantly greater.

He arrived as the ultimate outsider. He was the No. 9 hitter most of last season. Now, he's a core player.

Bordick went 0-for-4 with an error last night in the Orioles' 8-2 loss to Kansas City, but manager Ray Miller wasn't talking about him on Sunday when he questioned his team's courage and character. And club officials weren't talking about him last winter when they sought to add more gamers.

At times, Bordick appears to be one of the only Orioles trying.

"When you see how much he demands of himself, you can't help but like him," said Flanagan, now an Orioles broadcaster. "He's in the game. He's a manager on the field, thinking situations. He's not a superficial player. There's depth to his game."

Bordick batted .260 last season, established career highs with 13 homers and 29 doubles and played his usual outstanding defense. Still, he trained harder over the winter than in years past -- in large part because his workout partners were Cal Ripken, B.J. Surhoff and Orioles strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop.

Rather than return home to Maine, Bordick chose to stay in Baltimore for the first time, enabling his daughter, Chandler, 5, to remain in kindergarten. He said that he pushed harder in the presence of Ripken, Surhoff and Bishop. And one of his primary goals was to improve his running.

Bishop said that Bordick strengthened his legs through incline sprint training on a high-speed treadmill. He also performed plyometric exercises -- hopping, bounding, jumping -- in addition to adopting a more intense weight training program.

So, is he indeed quicker and faster?

The answer seems to be yes.

"I think he's a half-step quicker," Bishop said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but if you equate that to getting a jump on the ball or beating a ball at first base over the course of 162 games, it adds up to a lot."

Still, such subtleties often escape modern players, many of whom would rather hit a home run than beat out a grounder. Bordick didn't need to work on his running -- he's never going to be a major base-stealing threat. But winning players don't just work hard; they're always looking for new ways to beat you.

"We've been talking the past couple of years about stealing bases, how to set up guys," Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo said. "You saw it in the spring and earlier in the season -- he got some great jumps. He didn't trust himself completely a couple of times when he broke early. That's all part of gaining confidence in doing something he hadn't done before."

Bordick's career-high in stolen bases was 12 in 1992; he also reached double figures in '93 and '95. He won't get much opportunity to steal batting second; more often than not, the Orioles would prefer to leave the first-base hole open with a left-handed batter hitting behind him. But could he do it?

"I'd like to think I could in certain spots," Bordick said, smiling. "Some guys are good at knowing the situations to run. I guess I've never really been considered a base stealer. But I worked at it a lot this spring, understanding situations, pitchers to run on. It's one of those things you work on, hope you get better at."

Bishop said that Bordick's off-season work not only helped his speed, but also his first-step quickness -- a critical element for successful shortstops. Bordick ranked fourth among all regular shortstops last season in "range factor" (putouts plus assists per nine innings). He's no less agile now, and Perlozzo said he continues to improve "in bits and pieces."

"He trusts his hands more than any player I've seen in a long time," Flanagan said. "He'll be on the run. His legs are moving, but his glove is rigid. And it goes right to the ball."

His hitting, meanwhile, continues to improve. Bordick's .355 average in spring training helped persuade Miller to keep him in the No. 2 spot, and he got off to an excellent start before his current 1-for-17 slide. He had only 21 hits against left-handers last season, and his .184 average was the second lowest in the AL. He is 9-for-23 off lefties this year.

Remember the debate over whether the Orioles should sign him and move Ripken to third base? Ripken played through a herniated disk in Bordick's first season, something he might not have been able to do at short. And now, Ripken is on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

It was the right move then, and it looks better every day.

Mike Bordick isn't part of the problem. He's part of the solution.

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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