O's Conine acquires proper perspective

Veteran can deal with trade rumors after '00 family crisis

March 19, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Jeff Conine hears his name featured among trade talks and shrugs. Playing for his fourth team in five seasons causes him no worry. Last season taught Conine the true meaning of terror. Whatever happens to the Orioles' veteran utility player in the next two weeks can't come close.

"If it's about perspective, I think I have my share now," Conine said before ending yesterday's 1-0 win over the Texas Rangers with a ninth-inning RBI single.

The Orioles probably will shed two veteran position players before setting their roster in Atlanta on March 30. Able to play first base, third base and outfield, rookie Mike Kinkade offers the same versatility as Conine, along with the bonus of representing a third catcher. Conine, 34, is in the final season of a two-year contract with a rebuilding franchise.

"I've changed teams before in my career. I know what it's about. I'd like to be part of this team. I've enjoyed my time here," said Conine, acquired from the Kansas City Royals just before the 1999 season. "If they want to move in another direction, as far as I'm concerned, that's their right. If there's a team out there that thinks I can help them win right now, that's not going to bother me."

Regardless, Conine says to bring it on. He endured a 2000 season like the rest of those who survived last July's clubhouse purge, except his chore was made doubly trying by personal complications that tugged at him for all but the first month of the season.

Conine and his wife, Cindy, were expecting their third child last Oct. 20, perfect timing for a baseball family. In late May, she was diagnosed with bleeding of the placenta, and bed rest prescribed. Fearing she would hemorrhage, Cindy's doctors had her admitted to a Fort Lauderdale hospital in early July.

Cindy's condition became further complicated by acute water retention that filled her abdomen with fluid and taxed her kidneys and liver. Every day, Conine wondered if his wife would have to undergo an emergency delivery.

"Your first thoughts are always with family. I'm no different," he said. "Cindy was hospitalized, but our other kids were at home. It was tough on them. They had no parents."

Conine is an incessant clubhouse instigator, whether wryly parrying with reporters, impressing teammates with exploits such as downing a 5-pound steak in a single sitting or scaring unsuspecting fans by suffering elaborate "injuries" during pre-game exercise. But the thought of his wife immobilized, her life threatened by a condition her obstetricians had never seen in a combined 40,000 pregnancies, turned life very serious.

"It was after the All-Star break that they dumped all the heavy stuff on us. I'm staying by the phone every day waiting for the call to say it's time," Conine said.

The couple was told if Cindy delivered after 25 weeks, their child had only a 50 percent chance of survival and a far greater probability for developmental problems if their child did live.

If Cindy could carry the child for 28 weeks, the child's chance for survival improved to 95 percent. It was during the 28th week that Cindy's condition grew critical.

"It was tough for everybody, but I think it was tougher for him," Cindy Conine said. "There was nothing he could do except worry."

Tucker Conine - 2 pounds, 4 ounces - was delivered by Caesarean section on July 31. His father was pulled off first base after walking in the first inning of a home game against the Minnesota Twins. Teammate Mike Mussina arranged a charter to hurry him back to South Florida, but not in time for Tucker's arrival. Conine was greeted at the hospital with good news: His child was born able to breathe on his own, a thankful sign that his lungs were healthy. Cindy had two liters of water drained from her during delivery; Tucker remained hospitalized for the next nine weeks.

"She hung in there for the extra three weeks, and it made all the difference in the world," Conine said.

Conine remained home four days. When her husband left, Cindy remained in the hospital with complications while the Orioles' schedule allowed him to return for only one more day before season's end. On the day he rejoined the team in Tampa, Conine endured an 0-for-7 game as his mind remained elsewhere.

"I know he felt guilty about it," Cindy said. "His thinking was that he was leaving to go play baseball. It didn't seem right to him."

Separation from family took an obvious toll. Conine's batting average plummeted from .292 to .271 within three weeks after his son's precarious birth.

Having homered 10 times in his first 82 games, Conine didn't hit his 11th home run until his 120th game and managed only two extra-base hits from July 5 to Aug. 5.

"I'm not going to say that it didn't affect me," said Conine, who eventually recovered to bat .284 while suffering a drop from the previous season's 75 RBIs to 46.

"I'm one who really hates excuses about why I don't perform well, but I don't mind saying that last year it was really difficult getting out on the field and getting that out of my mind, especially after going home and seeing what he looked like. It's a pretty powerful impression."

On Saturday, Tucker Conine was the center of attention outside the Orioles' clubhouse. Developmentally, his height and weight rank in the 90th percentile of 5-month-old children - his age based on his due date rather than delivery date. He has no developmental problems. Cindy has fully recovered.

For Jeff Conine, life is again good, no matter where it takes him.

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