There's no masking Fordyce's enthusiasm

By doing little extras, O's catcher No. 1 at last

March 15, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Look for Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce before a game this season, and there's a good chance he'll be warming up the night's starting pitcher in the bullpen.

Look for him after the last out of an inning, and you might spot him halfway to the mound, offering advice to his battery mate, reminding him of a hitter's tendencies or correcting a flaw in mechanics or attitude.

If there's such a thing as a player's manager, then Fordyce is a pitcher's catcher. They rave about the rapport he develops with them, the target he sets, the trust he instills. He does the little extras, which have added up to a lot since a trade with the Chicago White Sox brought him to Baltimore on July 29.

And for the first time, he'll be doing them as the undisputed No. 1 catcher rather than as a backup waiting for his chance and fending off another demotion to the minors.

"I've been looking for a responsibility like this, and now I have it," said Fordyce, who turns 31 in May. "Now it's just a matter of putting W's up. That's really what my job is. You have other offensive threats here and great pitchers. I'm just there to try to gel in and make everything go smooth. ... Mentally, you realize you're going to be there every day. Actually I'm looking forward to it."

He seems pumped about everything, even the collection of young, unproven pitchers in the Orioles' camp who might fill holes in the rotation and bullpen. And if there's any pressure about opening a season with as much responsibility as he's been given -- starting catcher, veteran leader, mentor -- he doesn't sense it.

"I had to fight to get to where I'm at, and I'm not content," he said. "I've always wanted to get better, so I don't think there's any pressure. There's more ease, saying I have security, but that's not me. I'm self-motivated to be a better player each year. I'm one of those guys who has to do everything it takes to be better."

He could have done much better in the standings last year if the White Sox hadn't swapped him and three minor-league pitchers for four-time Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson and DH Harold Baines. They were headed toward a Central Division title. The Orioles were headed toward another fourth-place finish. A lesser man might have been crushed. Fordyce rushed.

He took a red-eye from Anaheim, Calif., where the White Sox were playing when the trade was announced that night, and arrived in time to start for the Orioles the following afternoon.

"If people want to use that to say something about me, that's fine. But that's just me. I want to play baseball, regardless," said Fordyce, who batted .322 with nine homers in 53 games with the Orioles.

"I know there's no security and guarantees in baseball. They want me, they have no catcher. Why wouldn't I want to go and play that day, another major-league day? That's just my attitude. I don't use it as a conversation piece."

He does enough talking with his pitchers, who need little time to form a bond with him. For Pat Hentgen, a free-agent acquisition in December, it happened in the early days of camp.

"I like throwing to Brook," he said after an intrasquad game. "It's a nice target and he meets you halfway to the mound to talk to you. I love that stuff."

"I do take pride in that," Fordyce said. "I want that pitcher to step on the mound and have complete confidence in me to help him through whatever."

Warming up pitchers in the bullpen used to be the norm, but not anymore. That makes Fordyce something of a throwback.

"Unless something else comes up, I plan to keep doing that. I can't see why not. That's only 10 or 15 minutes. I know your legs get tired toward the end of the year, but that's more important to the pitcher, to see my target," he said. "... It makes it easier on him ... as opposed to throwing to somebody with a different stance and different look."

"Some catchers don't like to do that," said manager Mike Hargrove, "and I can't say that I blame them because it's a very taxing position. It says a lot about him. He's very thorough in his job and prepares for it. I think that's why Brook has been able to accomplish what he's done so far.

"I think four years ago, people looked at Brook Fordyce and doubted that he could ever be a regular, everyday catcher. Maybe they saw him as a good backup in the major leagues. But his work ethic, his preparation, have allowed his talent to develop to where he does a good job."

It just wasn't good enough for the White Sox. Johnson brought more credibility, along with a World Series ring from the 1997 Florida Marlins, to a young pitching staff unaccustomed to the pressures of October baseball.

Fordyce appeared in a career-high 105 games with the White Sox in 1999, when he batted .297. He had gotten into 40 last season before the trade, which amounted to be a three-month rental of Johnson, who re-signed with the Marlins over the winter. The Orioles, meanwhile, stood pat.

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