Webster near catching on with Boston

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Conine open to a deal, if it brings playing time

July 28, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Former Orioles catcher Lenny Webster, who cleared waivers last week and became a free agent, appears on the verge of signing with the Boston Red Sox.

Webster said yesterday that he has spoken with Boston officials, who are seeking another catcher to assist Jason Varitek. He flew to Toronto last night, where the Red Sox began a three-game series, and was hopeful that an agreement would be reached in the next few days.

"Let's just say that it's a possibility that I could be playing for Boston," Webster said. "Nothing's etched in stone, but hopefully we'll finalize some things soon."

The Red Sox had been leading the wild-card chase before falling on hard times. But with last night's win in Toronto, they are within a half-game of the Blue Jays, who have taken over the wild-card lead. They also were putting a heavy strain on Varitek, who has gotten most of the starts with rookie Creighton Gubanich the only alternative. Scott Hatteberg blew out his elbow in May and is not expected back until at least mid-August.

"They have a really good team," Webster said. "They have a great pitching staff and they have a chance to win and get to the postseason. If I can bring some type of veteran leadership to the team, or at least offer my skills, hopefully that'll be enough to get them where they need to be."

Orioles general manager Frank Wren had attempted to move Webster, 34, since claiming Mike Figga off waivers from the New York Yankees on June 3, but never could hammer out a deal. Rather than keep Webster on the disabled list, where he had been since May 13 with an ankle injury, the club designated him for assignment.

Wren had been in close contact with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but they traded for journeyman catcher Joe Oliver after Webster was released. Another club that had expressed interest in Webster, the Atlanta Braves, acquired Greg Myers from the San Diego Padres this week to fill their need. Webster, who lives just outside of Atlanta, had wanted to join the Braves.

"I saw what happened with Pittsburgh and Atlanta, but what can you do? You just watch. It's a waiting game," Webster said.

Boston would be Webster's fifth team. He broke into the majors with the Minnesota Twins in 1989 and spent parts of five seasons there before being traded to Montreal in March 1994. He signed with Philadelphia as a free agent the next year, then returned to the Expos in 1996 after being released by the Phillies in spring training.

He signed with the Orioles in '97 and had his best season the next year, establishing career highs in games (108), at-bats (309), runs (37), hits (88), doubles (16), home runs (10) and RBIs (46) while sharing time with Chris Hoiles. He was relegated to backup duty again after a December trade brought four-time Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson to Baltimore, and appeared in only 16 games because of injuries.

"It's been tough," he said. "I'm kind of wondering what it's going to be like when I get back because it's been so long. I've never been on the DL. But I'm excited that I have an opportunity to maybe be playing in a couple of days."

Conine ready to move, play

Among the Orioles drawing interest from other clubs is Jeff Conine, who said yesterday that he'd welcome more playing time elsewhere despite enjoying his stay here since being acquired from Kansas City in an April 1 trade.

Conine has been used sporadically since first baseman Will Clark came off the disabled list. Manager Ray Miller has said he wants Conine's bat in the lineup, but room for it is scarce with Clark at first, B. J. Surhoff in left field, Albert Belle in right and Harold Baines the primary designated hitter.

"Anything is a possibility," said Conine, who reportedly has been targeted by the Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants. "In the back of your mind, everybody knows it's a possibility. You accept that and don't even think about it because if it happens you've got no control over it. You can sit here and stew over it but it's just a waste of energy."

Asked about the chance to play more if he moves to a contender, Conine said, "I'm not going to say no to that. I've been a starter my whole career, basically. I think I've adjusted pretty well to this role, but my heart would still want to say, `Get out there and play every day.'

"I knew coming here, the quality of people they had playing the positions I play, that I wasn't going to be seeing the lineup every day. That's for sure. The first month, it was tough for me to get acclimated. Then I had a little over a month of playing full-time where I was able to get my game back. Now I've adjusted to where I'm able to do a little better when they need me."

The numbers support this. With a pinch hit last night, Conine is hitting .429 (9-for-21) over his last nine games and .354 (23-for-65) with seven doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs over his last 22.

No big deal

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