Former leading man taking it from the top

Baseball: Now with the Cleveland Indians, former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson is trying to prove that he can still make a significant contribution as a leadoff hitter.

March 05, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - It has been more than a decade since Brady Anderson had to wonder about his place in the lineup. He was such a regular fixture in the Orioles' outfield that it is he - not consecutive-games king Cal Ripken - who holds the club record for games played at Oriole Park.

So this must be a strange time.

The Cleveland Indians are preparing for another run at the American League Central title and Anderson finds himself in an unfamiliar uniform and an uncomfortable situation, forced to audition for a significant role in their 2002 playoff bid.

It is not a sure thing.

As the exhibition season begins, Anderson needs to prove that his disappointing 2001 performance was an aberration and that he is the best fit for the leadoff spot on a team that already appears to have its outfield set.

"We feel like he's a guy who had a bad year, but still is a presence in the leadoff spot," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who snapped up Anderson soon after the Orioles released him in November.

The Orioles obviously disagreed. They looked at their crowded roster and Anderson's .202 batting average and chose to pay him almost $4 million to spend the 2002 season playing for somebody else.

Maybe his departure was hastened by some poor late-season roster decisions by the front office - as Anderson suspects - or maybe club officials just came to view him as a declining player who would be an impediment to the progress of the Orioles' rebuilding effort.

There were whispers. He was too fixated on home runs ... too old ... too stubborn to adjust. Whatever the reason, he was released with one year remaining on his contract and quickly pursued by the Indians and the AL East champion New York Yankees. Baseball's funny that way.

"I found out pretty early on," Anderson said. "My agent [Jeff Boras] called me in early November and told me that they were going to release me in the next week or so. ... Jeff said they told him they had roster problems.

"Once I heard that, I started looking at my options. You go through a lot in the major leagues - a lot of setbacks, injuries, disappointments. You realize that you can't always have things the way you want. No sense tying yourself in knots over it. I just thought about where I might play."

One thing is certain. Anderson should not lack for motivation as he competes for playing time with a solid group of outfielders that includes developing slugger Russell Branyan, newly acquired leadoff candidate Matt Lawton, Milton Bradley and veteran Wil Cordero. Rookie Alex Escobar also figured to be in that group, but he suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury yesterday.

"The bottom line is, I'm betting on Brady's pride," Shapiro said. "I believe that he does not want his career to end with last season."

When you're 38, the burden of proof is entirely your own.

Things change

Anderson chose the Indians because he felt that it was where he would have the best chance to remain in the starting lineup and play on a winning team, but the Cleveland outfield situation has changed dramatically since he signed.

The Indians traded superstar second baseman Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets for Lawton and Escobar, which greatly enhanced the team's outfield depth and amplified the challenge that will face Anderson during the exhibition season.

Branyan figures to get most of the playing time in left. Bradley is targeted for a regular role in center. Lawton is going to be in right. Anderson likely will have to play all three positions - and even show up occasionally as the designated hitter - to get regular at-bats.

"His role on the club has shuffled some since that trade," Shapiro said, "but he still is a pivotal guy for us if he can occupy that leadoff spot and play multiple outfield positions. That would make our outfield and lineup a lot deeper."

In a sense, Anderson is in the same situation as the past couple of seasons in Baltimore, where he had to defend his playing time against challenges from several developing players.

"It's the job of front-office people to create competition," Shapiro said. "We're going to give him the respect that his career achievements entitle him to. We're going to give him the chance to get close to everyday at-bats, but we aren't handing anybody a job."

Anderson has never been one to shy away from competition. His competitive fire is so strong that he regularly takes up new pursuits in the off-season to test himself. He has run in all-comer track meets, played in tennis tournaments, even committed hundreds of hours to becoming a strong chess player. If his confidence was tested by the tribulations of last season, it apparently was not shaken.

"At this point, I'm going to go about things the same way I always have," Anderson said. "I'm getting prepared for the season, and I'll be prepared when the season starts."

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