Relaxed and ready to roll

Orioles: With plenty of adversity behind him, relief pitcher John Bale has a chance to make the team.

March 10, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - For someone whose immediate future in baseball is so unsettled, John Bale couldn't be more relaxed.

Maybe it's the surgery that relieved the pain and stiffness in his left arm, or the daughter who recently turned 1. Perhaps it's the distance of last winter's horror in Venezuela, or knowing that his father is in good health.

It isn't until all the possibilities are examined that it becomes so clear just how full Bale's plate was last spring as he tried locating one during games.

Bale pitched himself off the team, winning twice but posting a 6.91 ERA in seven spring games. But now he's taking another shot at it, this time with a stronger arm, a clearer head and a less cluttered path.

John Parrish's pending knee surgery - he tore the anterior cruciate ligament during Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Twins - has eliminated one contender for the third left-handed relief opening. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations, have expressed a willingness to take three lefties out of camp, and the field has grown smaller.

Buddy Groom and B.J. Ryan are assured of going north, apparently leaving Bale and Sean Runyan.

"My mind-set coming into the spring was I was going to make this team anyway," said Bale, 27. "I'm not going to come in and hope something goes bad for another player and I get a shot. I think it's my time. I'm ready to go out there and compete at that level. I think I've competed at the Triple-A level long enough. It's time to move on."

That also means leaving behind the worries and fears that weighed so heavily on him.

Bale still shudders at the memory of being in Venezuela for the 2000-01 winter league season. Of having a stranger, hands trembling, hold a shotgun to his head and prepare to squeeze the trigger until fleeing when a car approached.

The assailant didn't demand money, and Bale still doesn't know why he was singled out on a dark street in front of his hotel. No wonder Bale, who immediately returned to the United States, chose the Dominican this winter.

He left the club briefly in spring training last year for the birth of his daughter, Madison, who arrived on Feb. 22. Like many expectant fathers, he spent long nights praying that nothing would go wrong. If only he could have been lying next to his wife instead of staring alone at a hotel ceiling.

"It's definitely more relaxing now," he said. "The baby's here and she's healthy, whereas last year there were uncertainties."

They infiltrated other sectors of his family. Bale's father nearly died last spring when his appendix burst, heaping more stress upon a pitcher who learned again that the most serious threats to his happiness and security didn't stand in a batter's box.

"There was just a streak of bad luck there," he said, "but things are starting to smooth out."

Bale had two stints with the Orioles last season, getting his first major-league win on April 14, but he was often made unavailable because of stiffness and general discomfort in his forearm. Bale describes a pinching sensation, later found to be caused by a band of tissue between the outside elbow joint that orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews removed in November.

Bale, who was acquired from Toronto for catching prospect Jayson Werth in December 2000, spent only two weeks in the Dominican before flying to Birmingham, Ala., for the surgery.

"The last two months of the season I was basically pitching day-to-day. I'd have to go out and play catch and tell them how I felt. Unless it was absolutely killing me, I'm going to go out there and compete," he said. "I feel a lot better since I had the surgery."

There's still business to attend to, like trying to make the club and perhaps spend his first full season in the majors. Before getting into 14 games last season, Bale had made three appearances in the majors since the Blue Jays chose him in the 1996 draft.

"Obviously he's a late bloomer," Hargrove said.

"I can just concentrate on what I have to do to make this team," Bale said. "No distractions."

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