FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jeff Conine switched gloves again yesterday, slipping on a smaller model to take ground balls at third in an ongoing experiment by Orioles manager Mike Hargrove.
Having spent most of his career at first base or the outfield, Conine is being tried at the hot corner this spring. He made four appearances there last season, his first since before the 1995 season while playing for the Florida Marlins. It wasn't always pretty, but it also wasn't enough to scare off the Orioles from trying again.
The club is searching for an understudy to Cal Ripken after trading utility infielder Jeff Reboulet in December. It also is looking for ways to get Conine in the lineup while being cautious with Ripken, who is coming off back surgery.
It's too early to grade Conine, but he said yesterday that he's been "perfectly comfortable" fielding balls hit by coach Sam Perlozzo during batting practice.
"I think the uncomfortable feeling is going to come when I'm in a game for the first time," he said. "You're on a different side of the field and you've got to make a throw. There's more to think about. But the more work I get in right now, and getting used to the throws and the foot movement, the more comfortable I'll be during a game. So I don't foresee it being a problem."
Conine's throwing motion changes depending on where he's taking the ball. If he ranges to his left, he'll deliver it sidearmed. If he goes right, he'll throw over the top.
"To my left, I feel more comfortable staying down," he said. "If I have to backhand it, I try to get a little more arm, a little more carry."
Hargrove said earlier this week that most of Conine's playing time this spring would come at third. Conine, knowing the outfield is crowded and first baseman Will Clark is healthy, will take his at-bats anywhere he can get them.
"It's fine with me," he said. "I just want to make sure I get enough time in spring training so I don't embarrass myself when I get out there when it counts."
Said Hargrove: "He's doing all right. If Jeff plays there once every two weeks, that'll be fine with me. It's not a position change. This is just another way to get Jeff's bat in the lineup, and it gives me a legitimate way to give Cal a day off if he needs it. I think he'll be able to handle that."
First things first
Ripken took grounders at first base yesterday, but Hargrove said not to read anything into it or his statement earlier this week that implied Ripken could play there this season.
"I didn't get across what I meant," Hargrove said. "I assumed the question was whether Cal could play first base if we needed him. I tried to answer that Cal's a good enough athlete that I'm sure if we asked him to do that, he'd be able to in an emergency. There are no plans for Cal to play first base. Not even remotely.
"If it ever reaches that point, I'll certainly talk to Cal first."
Delino DeShields has been moving freely and without pain after having surgery in September to relieve an entrapped nerve in his thigh. But he's dealing with another type of discomfort.
"His teeth are bothering him. He had his wisdom teeth pulled before he came down," Hargrove said.
DeShields remains the front-runner to open the season as the starting second baseman. "I told him that in the competition for second base, Jerry [Hairston] would have to go above and beyond to win the job," Hargrove said. "Delino, when healthy, has established himself as a very good everyday major-league player."
No matter what happens to Billy Ashley in baseball, he'll always be remembered more for the labels that hung from him in 1994.
He was the can't-miss prospect, the minor league Player of the Year, the latest phenom to come through the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization.
Six years later, he's one of the new players in the Orioles' clubhouse and a long shot to make the club as an extra outfielder and right-handed bat off the bench. Even at 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds, he's barely visible, with his locker hidden in a corner behind a row that includes all the catchers in camp. It's one of the few stalls that can't been seen upon entering the room at either of the two entrances on the other side.
This isn't how it was supposed to be for Ashley, not after he hit .345 with 37 homers and 105 RBIs at Triple-A Albuquerque in 1994. Not after he led all minor leaguers with a .701 slugging percentage.
Expecting to become a fixture in the Dodgers' lineup, he never was given much of a chance in Los Angeles and skidded off the fast track to the majors. Ashley started 57 games in left field the first half of the 1995 season, but only six in the second. Reduced to being a part-time player, he tied a club record with five pinch-hit homers in '96. He started only 31 games the next season, his last with the Dodgers.