Still the center of attention at 36

Orioles: Coming off one of his best seasons, Brady Anderson dismisses the notion that he's too old or slow to continue playing center field.

March 12, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

LAKELAND, Fla. -- There are numbers, there are statistics and then there are opinions. Numbers don't lie, statistics can and opinions usually do.

Such are life's lessons as experienced by Brady Anderson. At 36, the Orioles center fielder is entering his 13th major-league season and ninth as a starter, having constructed the most impressive offensive season of any American League leadoff hitter last year.

The numbers say Anderson enjoyed the highest on-base percentage (.404) of his career and swiped his age with 36 stolen bases. He scored 109 runs and reached base 120 times via walk or being hit by pitch.

Statistics say Anderson enjoyed the second-most satisfying year of his career, mixing 24 home runs among 57 extra-base hits and 81 RBIs.

Opinions are something else.

Considered a graybeard at his position, Anderson was classified by some warehouse factions last summer as too injured, too slow or too old to hold his position. Manager Ray Miller suggested he had lost a step, partly because of the numerous injuries that had gnawed on his legs. General manager Frank Wren agreed. And September ended with the club showcasing prospect Eugene Kingsale in center while Anderson stewed in left.

"It's funny. There is so much subjectivity in baseball, but the one thing you can get a precise reading on is time," Anderson said.

Anderson still owns the video of him beating former Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds in a sprint. Hammonds was touted as the fastest player ever drafted by the team when selected from Stanford in 1992. Anderson's personal best in the 200 meters is 20.99. His love for new training outlets has left him proficient enough to become a suitable practice partner for South African tennis star Amanda Coetzer -- his world-ranked girlfriend -- and some of her competitors.

This spring Anderson is looking for a few more at-bats and a start similar to last season when he had 21 RBIs in May before contributing a .292 average after the All-Star break. A year ago he nearly compiled the first 25-homer, 25-steal season in a career that had also included a 50-homer season (1996) and a 50-steal season (1992). He said injuries have slowed him at times the last several years but insists that when healthy he remains among the game's elite.

"I guess it's a visual thing sometime. If I watch a guy on the track who I'm going to race, I think he's faster than I am. But when we race, I win. A lot of it might have to do with running style. I see people in the paper referred to as `speedster.' What does that make me?" said Anderson.

Anderson takes his speed very personally. He has devoted much of his career to pursuing a flawless running form. Strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Bishop calls him the most technically sound speedster in the game. When Anderson hears or reads suggestions that the position has passed him by, even in Camden Yards' smallish meadow, he becomes irritated.

"I try to prepare myself as well as I can every spring. I've always done what I thought was right. I don't have a lot of regrets about my career," he said.

Then he wonders about the credentials or the motives of those making the evaluation. Charged with only one error last season, Anderson heard his range and ability to track a ball questioned.

"You can measure speed. It's not a subjective thing. Which guy is faster? How long does it take this guy to go from here to there. It's about as simple as it gets in athletics. I can tell you that right now I'm as fast as I've ever been in my career," Anderson said.

The '98 season crushed him. A variety of injuries contributed to Anderson hitting only .236 with 51 RBIs and 113 hits in 133 games. A strain in his right sternoclavicular joint made it painful to stay on the ball, causing him to develop a swing flaw. Due at least in part to the team's miserable showing and internal chaos, Anderson became one of the most oft-cited disappointments.

"I think I've been put under the microscope a little more closely than if we had been a winning team," said Anderson, who doesn't remember hearing the questions during the 1997 wire-to-wire division title run that carried the Orioles to a second consecutive American League Championship Series. "I find it somewhat amusing that some people expect me to defend myself, or at least my position, after last season."

The Orioles are no longer selling Kingsale as a possible replacement for Anderson in center. Instead, the Aruban is projected as a possible spare outfielder. Anderson, meanwhile, is second only to Cal Ripken as most-tenured Oriole.

By signing a five-year, $31 million contract as a free agent following the 1997 season, Anderson is assured of remaining in Baltimore through his 39th birthday. He is one of four Orioles (Ripken, Mike Mussina and Albert Belle are the others) who enjoy no-trade protection.

He is not, however, immune from opinions.

"I'm looking forward to playing the rest of my career here," he said. "I've never really thought about going anyplace else. Nothing has changed that."

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