JUPITER, Fla. - Jeff Conine is eligible for free agency at season's end, but he wants to remain an Oriole. Now it appears he might get his wish.
Conine is nearing agreement with the Orioles on a contract extension, sources close to the negotiations said yesterday. The sides are working on a two-year deal worth about $5 million per season, and it could also include a club option for 2005.
With the Orioles immersed in a youth movement, this potential commitment to a 35-year-old player says a lot about their feelings toward Conine. A year ago, several teams asked about a potential trade for Conine, but the Orioles steadfastly refused.
He entered last season as a bench player and wound up as the media's near-unanimous selection as Most Valuable Oriole.
"He hit .311 and had 97 RBIs and 14 home runs, and he had nobody hitting around him," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "He's the one constant we had in our lineup, both offensively and defensively. And the fact Jeff plays about four or five positions helps keep his bat in the lineup."
Conine's agent, Michael Watkins, is in Florida this weekend, working out the contract details with club executives, but both Watkins and Conine declined to comment on the negotiations. Team sources said the deal appeared imminent.
In November, the Orioles picked up the option year on Conine's current contract, which will pay him $3.5 million this season.
Conine, an 11-year major-league veteran who won a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins in 1997, said he has no desire to play for any team other than the Orioles.
"I don't know how long I'm going to play," Conine said, "but I feel like I've got a lot of good years left in me. And as long as I stay healthy and produce, I will hopefully have a chance to get back there [to the World Series].
"Hopefully, it's with the Orioles. Because playing in that facility [Camden Yards], with the fans we have in Baltimore, I would love the opportunity to play there in the postseason."
This spring, Conine has moved into the clubhouse locker once occupied by Cal Ripken. Teammates have noticed Conine assuming more of a leadership role, along with some other veterans in the clubhouse.
Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said Conine can lead with his work ethic alone.
"He's been the MVP of an All-Star Game," Crowley said. "He was in the middle of the batting order for a championship team. So in his own right, he's a star. But he carries himself like a blue-collar, everyday, lunch-bucket worker.
"He comes and works. There's no prima-donna attitude. And he will be a solid leader on this ballclub, hopefully for a long time."
Conine took offense at the suggestion that his window to play for another championship team is closing. He sees himself playing several more years, and looks at his 62-year-old father as an inspiration.
Jerry Conine wrestled for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. He lettered for three seasons as a lineman who played both offense and defense at Washington State. Later, Jerry became one of the premier handball players in the world and still plays to this day.
"That's definitely where I get my work ethic," Conine said.
Conine, himself, is a world-class racquetball player. He won a junior national championship in 1985 and later paired with his wife, Cindy, to win a national mixed-doubles championship in 1999.
But these days, Conine's training regimen is so intense that he no longer makes time for racquetball. And it's not like he's been slacking.
"I feel like I'm in just as good of shape as I was when I was 25," Conine said.
"I feel like I'm throwing the ball just as well. I feel like I'm just as quick. And I'm not blowing smoke here either. I actually feel that way."
Conine invites the skeptics. He has been proving them wrong his whole career.
He signed with the Kansas City Royals in 1987 as a 58th-round draft choice. That made him a long shot to make the big leagues, but he did it, and in 1993 the Marlins made him their first pick in the expansion draft.
Conine twice claimed team MVP honors in Florida and his game-winning home run off Oakland's Steve Ontiveros made him the MVP of the 1995 All-Star Game. The Marlins traded him back to Kansas City two years later, and he came to Baltimore in a 1999 trade for pitcher Chris Fussell.
The Orioles haven't had a winning season since, but that hasn't deterred Conine. Last season, his role increased with first baseman David Segui battling injuries, and Conine finished with the 10th-best batting average in the American League (.311) and third best with runners in scoring position (.400).
"Even though we had a rough season, he was determined to carry himself 100 percent as a professional and to do the best he could for the Orioles' organization," Crowley said. "Only a handful of players in the major leagues have that kind of dedication.
"He actually hit the baseball much better than his final average showed. I've been on teams where players have hit .340 or .350 and not hit the ball as consistently as Jeff did."
New contract, or no new contract, Conine is looking for improvement in 2002.
"I always set really high expectations for my role and my performance," Conine said. "I'm one that always feels no matter what kind of season I have, I can always do better."