Closing door on past isn't Timlin's style

March 02, 2000|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It was a hallmark of Mike Timlin's agony early last season, when hitters were torching him, saves were slipping away and fans at Camden Yards were howling for his head.

Every day, regardless of how he pitched, the Orioles' closer stood by his locker, looked reporters in the eye and answered every question in a firm voice. Even the ugly questions. The ones that made him want to scream.

"That's just the way I'm wired," Timlin said yesterday, after the Orioles' workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "It's pretty simple, really. The way I was raised, when you make a mistake, you fess up to it."

No hiding in the trainer's room. No hourlong showers that outlast the patience of those waiting to ask him what went wrong.

"I'm always going to stand up and face it," said Timlin, who grew up on the hard sands of West Texas. "It's easy to run and hide when things are going wrong. It's tough to stand up. But I've always been there. It doesn't seem right to do anything else or blame anyone else when things go wrong. No one else threw those pitches.

"I started doing it in Toronto [where he pitched from 1991-97], only no one noticed because I wasn't in the spotlight. But it's no different now that I am [in the spotlight]. I'm going to face whatever comes my way. Like the saying goes, `The strongest man carries the load when things are going bad.' "

Things couldn't get much worse for Timlin than they were early last season. After signing a four-year, $16 million contract to become the anchor of the Orioles' bullpen, he blew eight saves before the All-Star break, lost his closer's job and emerged as the symbol of a disappointing, high-priced team.

Clearly, the pressure of living up to a big contract was weighing him down. Instead of using his dominating array of pitches, which includes a nasty changeup, he was trying to be perfect, nibbling at the plate, lacking aggression. Hitters hammered him, and boos rained down.

But instead of going into hiding, he kept standing up and answering the questions, kept going back out and trying to right the wrongs -- signs of strength. And then, in the end, after realizing he wasn't being aggressive enough, he changed his approach, began challenging hitters and emerged as one of the American League's best closers after the All-Star break, converting 18 of 19 chances with a 1.40 ERA in 28 appearances. For the season, he had 27 saves and a 3.57 ERA.

If his up-and-down season was a mystery, his level of resolve wasn't. Obviously, he isn't the kind to buckle.

"It's not easy when you're getting killed out there and 50,000 people are giving it to you," he said. "But [handling it] wasn't that bad, really. I got a lot of positive mail. And people tend not to say snide things to your face, even if they're saying 'em at the ballpark. The thing was, I'm a Christian, and when scripture tells you to `be thankful in all things,' and I stand up and say, `Thank God for letting me get my rear handed to me today,' people tend to respect that.

"Bottom line, I could home every night, play with my son, look in the mirror and say I'd done my best. Sometimes that's just not good enough. That's the way the game is. You're going to lose sometimes. And the fans know that. They might get mad, but as long as you're giving an all-out effort, they know you're not trying to go out there and blow up."

Although his strong second-half comeback occurred after the Orioles had dropped out of playoff contention, it was impressive enough to persuade new manager Mike Hargrove to anoint him the closer for 2000, no questions asked, even though Mike Trombley (24 saves in 1999) has arrived from the Twins as part of a bullpen makeover.

Timlin, who will turn 34 next week, now wants primarily to avoid the first-half blowups that have confounded him over the past two seasons.

"I've had a lot of friends tell me, `Your second half is always great, so why don't you treat spring training like the All-Star break,' " Timlin said. "That's what I'm doing this year. I'm looking at this spring training as an extended All-Star break."

He's kidding about that. But he's serious about proving himself again in 2000 -- on the mound this time, not just in the clubhouse after a loss.

"I like where I am," he said. "Physically, everything is great. And mentally, I feel I'm leaps and bounds ahead of where I was last year. I feel I'm better prepared to enter the year. Mentally, last year, I don't think I was prepared. It was a new place and I didn't know what to expect. Sometimes, when you come to a new place, you don't know who to talk to or how to act, and you don't want to step on anyone's toes.

"This year, they know what I can do, I know what I can do, and anyone who doesn't know, I'll show them."

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