Riley shouldn't put wake-up call on hold

March 27, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

JUPITER, Fla. -- Matt Riley's vanity license plate says 24KTARM. His problem is his 10HEAD.

Now that he has been arrested and demoted, the question is whether the Orioles' top pitching prospect has been humbled.

Mike Mussina and B. J. Surhoff spoke repeatedly with Riley this spring about what it takes to achieve major-league success.

Evidently, the 20-year-old left-hander wasn't listening.

"He's receptive, yet he's skeptical," Mussina said yesterday. "I think he believes we don't understand what kind of person he is. The phrase, `Old school,' has come in a few times from him."

Well, Riley needs to understand that spring training is not spring break. And he needs to adopt a more professional approach to make his Gen X act succeed.

There's a place for Riley's bleached hair, body piercings and tattoos, even in the Orioles' button-down clubhouse. But first, he must learn to follow team rules, avoid off-the-field incidents and win major-league games.

At the moment, he's 0-for-3.

"He's a talented player who has a lot of room to improve -- his upside is tremendous," Mussina said. "But he keeps having these situations come up. It makes it tough for anyone to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Riley wasn't sufficiently alarmed by two penalties he received for tardiness this spring -- a clubhouse-imposed arrival time of 5: 15 a.m. for three days, and a fine from manager Mike Hargrove.

Strike three came Friday, when Riley was sprayed with Mace, handcuffed and arrested on charges of disorderly conduct following an altercation with Fort Lauderdale police outside a beachfront nightclub at 2: 34 a.m.

"You hope it's a wake-up call for his sake," Surhoff said. "Everyone is going to make mistakes. Some people are going to make bigger mistakes. We all make mistakes. But you learn from them.

"He's going to have to start learning from his mistakes. Time is going to be the only thing that lets us know if he does. Hopefully, this will help him grow up."

Riley might believe otherwise, but this is not a case of a youthful nonconformist being misunderstood by older, inflexible teammates -- or, for that matter, the outside world.

This is a case of immaturity, nothing less, nothing more.

"You can portray that [maverick] image if you want, but you need to understand what this job is, what it takes to do it," Mussina said. "He either doesn't understand or doesn't want to understand that."

Surhoff agreed.

"He's not the only one that's different in the room," the left fielder said. "We're not trying to say he has to conform, but there's a certain amount of conformity you have to do. We're in a structured environment, subject to other people's rules. He's going to have to realize that he hasn't done anything yet. He hasn't even gotten here yet.

"The biggest thing you try to get through to him -- and to any other kid -- is that this may be your only chance. There are 170 kids over in Sarasota [at minor-league camp] dying for this chance. The vast percentage of them will never get the opportunity he's getting."

Riley, the Orioles' third-round draft pick in 1997, became the youngest Orioles pitcher to make his major-league debut in 32 years last September. His appearance made him an immediate clubhouse curiosity, but his teammates left him alone, mindful of the pressure he was under.

Spring training marked his first chance to spend extended time with the Orioles' veterans. Mussina said he watched Riley throw batting practice a half-dozen times. He spoke with him on the field and in the trainer's room, offering him a pitcher's perspective while Surhoff gave the view of a position player.

"With on-the-field stuff, you can keep going over that every day," Mussina said. "That's kind of an easy thing to get through to him about. The other stuff, we're not in the business of baby-sitting. We explain things to him, and hope he can apply them."

Is Riley's appearance an issue?

"Our clubhouse has a lot of veteran players who have been doing this job for quite a while, and appreciate what it takes to stay here for quite a while -- guys who came into the league enough years ago that they would have never thought of coming in and looking like that," Mussina said. "To us, it's just different."

Riley took a considerable amount of ribbing in the Orioles' clubhouse, but seemed to accept it good-naturedly. At the same time, Surhoff said, "I'm not sure he quite realizes people are trying to help him."

It's his career, his life, his choice.

"It's not my job to hold his hand, or any other kid's hand," Surhoff said. "He's feeling his way. He's very raw. Like a lot of people, especially young people, he feels bulletproof, whether consciously or subconsciously.

"There's probably not one of us in this room who didn't feel some of that at some point. It's just a matter of what extent, and how you react to it."

Riley needs to become a professional and respect the game as much as Mussina and Surhoff.

A 24KTARM is useless with a 10HEAD.

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