For starters, Fordyce has lot to prove

Oriole battles Lunar, Gil for catcher's job

February 17, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Given the choice, Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce would prefer talking about the weather. Ask him about the family, his winter hobbies, his meal from the previous night. Just lay off last season.

"To tell the truth, I try to forget about it," he said. Fordyce is able to laugh, a response that comes easily to one of the nicest guys in baseball. But there was nothing funny about his season, and nothing that has guaranteed him a starting job with the Orioles.

Manager Mike Hargrove confirmed before yesterday's rain-shortened workout that he no longer views Fordyce as the No. 1 catcher, saying there's an open competition that includes Fernando Lunar and rookie Geronimo Gil. But given the .322 average that Fordyce produced after coming to the Orioles in a waiver-deadline trade in 2000, Hargrove expects him to rebound.

"I don't think he'll hit .200 again," Hargrove said. "If he does, I'll probably have a funeral because he'll kill himself."

There were no signs of life in Fordyce's bat. He never had been anointed a starter in spring training until last year, and responded by going 21 games without his first homer or RBI. He batted .209, with his average never rising above .223. After starting 55 of the first 80 games, Fordyce cracked the lineup in 34 of the last 82. The slump that wouldn't leave had buried him.

"I can't beat myself up over what happened," he said. "I did a little review over what could possibly have happened, but for the most part I'm trying to forget about it and just start all over. Unfortunately for me, I had an absolutely terrible year, something that I'm embarrassed about for myself."

He was just as lost behind the plate as beside it. Fordyce, 31, committed 10 errors, and his .983 fielding percentage ranked last among American League catchers. His offensive struggles seemed to carry over to other parts of his game, a violation of one of baseball's strictest unwritten rules.

"It shouldn't be tough to prevent that," he said. "You've got to go out there and realize that what I do behind the plate is helping the pitcher, helping to win the game. I always try to maintain that. Whether that happened or not, anybody can second-guess. I believe I was definitely helping the pitchers, but I feel that I can improve all my game."

A career .282 hitter before last season, Fordyce studied tapes of himself when going good and bad. "I'm just going to take my everyday approach and maybe do some little things," he said.

The changes will come one at a time, beginning with a shorter stroke that might improve on a .088 average with runners in scoring position, and 19 RBIs overall in 292 at-bats.

"Is there anything I could have done different? No, because if I knew any better, I would have made the adjustment, whether it be mental or physical," said Fordyce, who received a three-year contract extension in 2000.

"Hopefully I'll get it back, whether it's seeing the ball or whatever. I'll pick that up and concentrate on doing everything short. But the more you think about it and look at different avenues, the problem becomes bigger and bigger. So I'm trying to pinpoint it."

Fordyce met with hitting coach Terry Crowley after reporting to camp on Thursday. "We're going to form a game plan here in the next day or two," he said.

Hargrove must formulate his own plan. He'll most likely carry two catchers, and Fordyce seems certain to head north before the April 1 opener against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards. But Fordyce must fend off either Gil or Lunar for the starting job - two players similar in what they can offer the team.

Gil batted .293 in 17 games with the Orioles after being obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 31. Lunar, given the first shot at unseating Fordyce, made 46 starts among his 64 appearances and batted .246. He had surgery to remove a cyst in his left shoulder but appears at full strength. Out of minor-league options, he could be traded to make room for Gil.

"I'm competing for a job. There's no doubt about that," Fordyce said. "After the year I had, I have to prove to myself and the organization that I'm the guy. If I had a stellar year, then I could say, `OK, it's my job.' But I have to show them I'm rededicated to being the best I can be. I realized that in the off-season."

"It's an open competition," Hargrove said, "but I also know that Brook in the 2000 season was a productive offensive player and ran the team well. His name has an asterisk beside it. He has that distinction that he's done it at the major-league level. The other catchers haven't. That's obviously in his favor, but we don't have a No. 1 catcher right now."

Said Fordyce: "I have a lot of pride in myself, and I thought I was embarrassing to myself last season. I know I'm much better than that."

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