Minus drama, distraction, O's camp has new stance

Roster decisions now biggest burning issue

February 27, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles still must sort through all the candidates to locate a fifth starter and closer. They must determine whether Geronimo Gil, with a minor-league option remaining, is ready to unseat Fernando Lunar as backup catcher. Decisions also loom regarding a few openings on the bench.

This is intrigue?

Where's the volatile outfielder with the bad hip or the Iron Man with the dented rib? Where are the hordes of national media being rerouted to Fort Lauderdale, ignoring the Orioles' status as non-contenders for the chance at a juicy story?

There's no Albert Belle to limp through the early days of camp, unable to run but readily available to speak until needed most, when he abruptly left for good because of a degenerative hip condition that ended his playing career.

There's no Cal Ripken, with a film crew from Major League Baseball documenting his every step, even the measured ones that came from having a cracked rib. The drama of his pending retirement, or at least the anticipation of a later announcement, made roster competitions and rotation uncertainties seem minuscule by comparison.

Two years ago, Scott Erickson developed elbow stiffness a week into spring training and needed two surgeries, the last to transplant a ligament. The possibility of Ripken's surgically repaired back flaring up had the media transfixed on his facial expressions each time he reached for a ball. Was that a grimace or a tight smile? Reporters got their daily exercise by trying to pull medical updates from club officials.

So what have the Orioles provided so far this spring? Backup catchers and utility infielders. Fifth starters and spare outfielders. It's all baseball all of the time, minus the soap opera.

Welcome to Camp Quiet, where distractions are kept to a minimum. It's gotten to where a prospect can't even get arrested around here.

Coaches run various drills on the main and back fields. Manager Mike Hargrove paces from one batting cage to the next, occasionally dipping a hand in his back pocket. Preparations are made for the second intrasquad game, where a team with black jerseys will play a team with black jerseys. The smart money's on the black jerseys.

"Every camp is different. Every camp has its own little circus, but this is very regular. It's kind of refreshing," Hargrove said.

"There are no conspiracies evident yet."

Burning issues this year might include how often David Segui does his nails and whether Hargrove continues to choose egg salad among the sandwiches stacked on a clubhouse table. It's not exactly the kind of stuff that gets you on SportsCenter.

"You can see that it's different around here," said outfielder Jeff Conine.

"Knock on wood," said pitcher Pat Hentgen, "but there have been zero distractions from a team standpoint. Everything's been going fine, everyone's having fun and working hard. It's been great."

Conine remembered all the attention garnered by Ripken last year, but insisted the club had little trouble maintaining its focus. "I think he was very good at keeping it out of the clubhouse and doing his thing when it was a dead time anyway," Conine said. "His game probably was affected more than anybody's. I don't think it really affected us."

Asked to imagine being the subject of a year-long documentary, Conine said: "It would have been on the comedy channel. They wouldn't have shown it on ESPN. It would have been on ESPN3."

Conine describes this year's atmosphere as being "all business," with players aware of the latest gloomy predictions attached to the club.

"You look at what everybody has said about this team, how we won't play well. Everyone here's taken that quietly as a challenge to prove everyone wrong," he said.

"I never use that as a motivating factor. I basically prepare the same way, regardless. But it would be nice at the end of the season when you're successful to say, `Hey, look at what we did.' "

The Orioles remain both undefeated and winless in intrasquad games, beating themselves twice this week. Their first exhibition game is tomorrow night, with Opening Day approaching in 33 days. By then, the club will have its fifth starter and closer, its backup catcher and bench players.

There's still plenty of time for a little intrigue. Just don't count on it.

"There's a lot less media here. It's really more quiet, but that's a good thing, too. You've got to move on and start a new legacy," said second baseman Jerry Hairston.

"Last year, we wondered if Albert was going to be on the team or not. That was a big bat in the lineup, and it was a little bit of a letdown when we knew he wasn't going to be playing anymore. That was very disappointing. But you've got to turn the page."

It might take awhile for the plot to thicken.

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