Conine gets angle on third base role

O's backup gets used to new job, throwing from multiple positions

March 24, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- By the time the grounder reached third base that day in Viera, Jeff Conine knew his throw was probably headed anywhere except first base.

Pain inside his right shoulder told him something was wrong, maybe seriously wrong. The sensation flared between innings as he made a warm-up throw across the diamond. "That throw absolutely killed me," Conine said of the warm-up toss. "When I got the ball, I knew it was going to hurt like hell if I tried to go over the top so I sidearmed it. It wasn't close."

Conine returned to third base yesterday to take fungoes. During the Orioles' 7-1 exhibition loss to the Montreal Expos, he pinch hit for DH Harold Baines, but could not add to his team's five hits.

So far this spring, he has received only 21 at-bats, fewer than any position player projected to go north, and remains a man without a position. Conine has not played in the field since making the wild throw in Viera on March 4.

Conine entered camp as the guinea pig at third base, a place he hadn't worked since instructional league before the strike-shortened 1995 season. Manager Mike Hargrove hoped after being exposed to the position this spring Conine could take over for Cal Ripken once every 10 days to two weeks. Should the Iron Man go down with injury, Ryan Minor would be a phone call away in Rochester.

Used to throwing from the more consistent arm slot of an outfielder, Conine's introduction to third base called for him to heave it from every posture. He often submarined a throw after extending for a ball to his left. A backhand grab necessitated an over-the-top throw.

Since no one officially told Conine of his new assignment until he walked into camp, he didn't use the winter as a starting point for his transition.

"I was making throws from every arm angle across the diamond because I wanted to get comfortable. I ended up overworking it. Now I'm going to pick my spots, work on something and that's it," said Conine, estimating he would make 60-70 throws a day from positions unnatural to a career first baseman and left fielder. "Before, it kept getting worse every day."

Conine at first feared the worst. Could years of tournament racquetball have caused a tear in the rotator cuff? He had suffered irritation in spring training before but never like this. X-rays revealed no structural damage. Tendinitis was judged the cause and a cortisone shot administered. "As far as strength goes, the doctors say I have excellent strength. The tendon got inflamed where it connects to muscle and there's an impingement that causes pain," he said.

The pain didn't end with his shoulder. A cortisone injection stifled his immune system and Conine soon found himself also battling a severe case of flu, which left him dehydrated and 10 pounds lighter. At the same time, his 4-year-old daughter, Sierra, contracted pneumonia.

Conine stood near third base yesterday accepting ground balls and lobbing them back to third base coach Sam Perlozzo. A rehab program that began with 20 throws from 45 feet will eventually progress to 25 throws from 90 feet and possibly include a number from the outfield to a base.

The timing could have been worse. Last year, Conine received only inconsistent playing time behind first baseman Will Clark. An everyday player and former All-Star with the Florida Marlins, Conine hit only .140 in April and did not hit his first home run until May 4. Still, he remained a solid clutch hitter, entering May with 10 RBIs and only six hits.

Conine's playing time soared after Clark landed on the disabled list for the first of two times. He hit four home runs and drove in 17 runs in May while hitting fifth or sixth.

Clark's return in late May from a broken thumb affected Conine's role but not his productivity. As a pinch hitter, Conine led the American League with a .360 average and contributed two home runs and nine RBIs. Conine also hit .331 with runners in scoring position, including a staggering .456 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

This month's injury has done nothing to temper his enthusiasm for a new challenge. Conine expresses no reservations about hitting. "The hitting will be there," says the career .287 hitter. Third base poses a higher degree of difficulty, somehow making it even more inviting."

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