O's Bale has new view on priorities

Events teach pitcher to smell roses, take each day as it comes

April 24, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If John Bale doesn't sweat the details, like whether he'll move into the Orioles' rotation this weekend or if he'll impress the club enough to stay out of the minors, it's because of a perspective obtained in the past few months.

He's feared for his life, celebrated the birth of a child, reveled in the glory of his first big-league win and prayed for a father near death. All of it since a few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve. All of it putting baseball in its proper place.

Bale continues to receive consideration for Saturday's start in Minnesota, with Chuck McElroy expected to stay in the bullpen after three appearances in the fifth slot.

Even if the move occurs, it won't necessarily stabilize Bale's professional career. He's made only two appearances with the Orioles since being called up April 14. The club views him as a starter for Triple-A Rochester, but uses him as a reliever in the majors.

Maybe that will change this weekend. Willis Roberts already is assured of taking Sidney Ponson's turn again tomorrow before possibly becoming the closer. Bale, 26, could at least temporarily give the Orioles two rookies in the rotation.

"They haven't said anything to me," Bale said. "I'd imagine if Chuck goes back to the bullpen, that would be four lefties and something would have to happen. I'd definitely welcome it. Wherever they need me.

"I like starting, but that would be totally up to them."

So much has seemed beyond his control. Bale's father almost died four weeks ago when his appendix burst. "He's OK now," Bale said. "I guess he waited too long and it ruptured."

That alone would make a late roster cut in spring training, when his 6.91 ERA in seven games hung heavy in the Florida air, more tolerable. His experience in Venezuela late last year did the same.

Bale and a teammate on the Lara winter league team were watching fireworks outside their hotel on Dec. 31 when a stranger approached them from a nearby alley. "He turned the corner and had a sawed-off shotgun," Bale said.

"He held it up to us for about 10 minutes, told us to get our hands up. My friend had a camcorder in his hand, I had some money in my wallet. We were asking him in Spanish, the best we could, `Do you want money? Do you want the camera?' He said no."

They watched the man glance down the street both ways before shifting his weight to his back leg and raising the gun to Bale's head. Turning to his friend, Bale said, "He's going to blast me." He thought about his fiancee, who was eight months pregnant, and the baby he'd never hold.

"Right when it happened, a car came around the corner, luckily, and he lowered the gun and went back into the alley and into the building he was staying in, which was right next to our hotel," Bale said. "We ran in and told security and they didn't call the police. They really just kind of blew us off. They didn't think it was a big deal at all."

Bale did. He returned home, leaving behind a 1.21 ERA in 18 games and a little more innocence.

"He was shaking and acting like he wasn't clear on what he wanted," Bale said.

"I thought he was shaking so bad he was going to accidentally pull the trigger. I don't know what he was trying to do. I don't know if he was high on something. It just wasn't my time, I guess.

"Now, I don't take anything for granted. I try to take advantage of every moment I have. That's why, when people talked about the numbers I had this spring, I'm thinking, `It's OK. I'm just glad to even be in spring training.' It's like a new life for me."

To a far lesser degree, so was the trade that brought him to the Orioles. He had gotten into three games over two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays before they swapped him for minor-league catcher Jayson Werth, a former No. 1 draft pick, during the winter meetings.

A club official had flown to Venezuela and told Bale he wouldn't be leaving the organization. Ignore the surplus of left-handed pitchers, he was advised.

"Three days later, boom," he said. "But I was excited. Here, I've got plenty of opportunities to try to prove myself."

He'd like to prove his value as a starter, but won't complain about any day spent in the majors.

"You have to get more mentally prepared for starting," he said. "You've got your four days and you know what you have to do to get ready. There's more of a mental game plan. But with relieving, I like doing that, too.

"You come in, guys on base, and you have to get the job done. You have to prepare quickly. And you've got to be focused every day for the entire game.

"I guess I'd lean toward starting. That's where I see my long-term future. Grover's [manager Mike Hargrove] already mentioned that to me after spring training when they sent me down. He said my future was in starting."

He just didn't say how near the future is for Bale.

"I like his breaking ball," Hargrove said, rattling off a list. "I like the way he matched up against left-handers in spring training. I like the way the ball came out of his hand.

"A lot of real subtle things. I like his body type. He's tall and lanky, and he's left-handed. There's a lot of things to like about John. It's hard to specify just one."

Ask Bale about his most memorable moments of the last four months, the ones that will stay with him for a lifetime, and he'd have the same difficulty.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs, good and bad," he said.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Comerica Park, Detroit

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Pat Hentgen (0-2, 2.59) vs. Tigers' Jeff Weaver (1-3, 4.34)

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