Now unable to make his pitch

Orioles: Pat Hentgen prided himself on taking the ball every fifth day, but an injury has derailed him the past two seasons.

August 04, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

SARASOTA, Fla. - Pat Hentgen, Darryl Kile and the rest of the 2000 St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff had a three-word slogan that summed up their commitments to the team, themselves and the game they loved.

Take the ball.

When a major-league pitcher spends two or three hours every five days throwing a baseball 90 mph, his entire arm is put to a serious test. Afterward, his shoulder and/or elbow are usually packed in ice, and five days later, when it's time to start another game, he rarely will go to the mound without feeling some semblance of pain, stiffness or discomfort.

Not every pitcher always takes the ball. Starts are skipped or pushed back, and sometimes a pitcher goes to the mound and yields to the fact that he just doesn't have it. That Cardinals staff prided itself on being tougher than that and wound up going to the 2000 National League Championship Series.

So, this year, in the early afternoon hours of June 22, when the sports world started learning about Kile's tragic death, Hentgen knew the significance when the sportscasters said one of Kile's last published comments was, "Once you take the ball, you've got a job to do."

Kile had uttered that phrase after what turned out to be his final start, four days before he was found dead in his Chicago hotel room, from a massive heart attack.

Teammates, past and present, began to talk about how Kile always took the ball. Hentgen hadn't played with Kile since he left the Cardinals after the 2000 season to join the Orioles as a free agent, but he took the news of Kile's death hard.

"He was a better person than a pitcher," Hentgen said. "He was great in the clubhouse. Great leader, always trying to help other pitchers on the staff, trying to make the whole team better, not just Darryl Kile."

As Hentgen said this, he was sitting in the clubhouse at the Orioles' minor-league training complex this past week, having just made another step in the recovery process from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Teammates say the way Hentgen was describing Kile, he could have been describing himself.

Hentgen and Kile were the same age, 33. They had a similar drive, and they had a similar approach to helping the team win.

The Orioles miss Hentgen this season. He signed a two-year contract with an option for 2003, and when he tore an elbow ligament in May 2001, no one could be sure he would ever pitch with the Orioles again. He went 2-3 last season with a 3.47 ERA in nine starts before the injury.

Hentgen won the Cy Young Award in 1996, the year he had 10 complete games, and his determination never faded, even if his velocity did.

"You miss a guy like that," said Orioles reliever Buddy Groom. "You miss the innings in the rotation, you miss his leadership in the clubhouse, being prepared in here every day, coming in and helping us, keeping everybody light around the clubhouse, and then being so intense when he was on the mound."

Though the Orioles don't get to see it, Hentgen's look of intensity is still there. It was there at 11 Tuesday morning, with the Florida heat just starting to take its hold, as Hentgen pitched a six-inning simulated game. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley watched from behind the batting cage, as Hentgen pretty much dominated three young Orioles minor-league hitters, but every other inning Hentgen would groan in disgust if one of his pitches went astray.

To simulate the break he would get if this were an actual game, Hentgen went to the dugout between innings, and four minor-leaguers, including the catcher, followed close behind. They sat right next to him on the bench, and he spent that time talking to them about baseball, with their young faces hanging on his every word.

"It's been great having him here," said Chris Dunaway, the Orioles' minor-league strength and conditioning coach. "These other guys have learned a lot from him."

The Orioles' tentative plan is to have Hentgen begin a 30-day rehabilitation assignment this week, making a start at each rung of the minor-league ladder before rejoining the big-league club.

Hargrove came away from Tuesday's outing optimistic that Hentgen will be able to rejoin the starting rotation in September. After the season, the Orioles will have a decision to make on whether to pick up Hentgen's $6 million option for next season or pay him the $600,000 buyout, allowing him to go back on the free-agent market.

But Hentgen isn't dwelling on these things.

"The hardest thing for me," Hentgen said, "was that I always felt that my No. 1 positive thing was that I could take the ball every fifth day, give you some innings and give your team a chance to win. Not being able to do that from May 15 last year all the way through this year has been the toughest thing.

"That [uncertainty for 2003] never really bugged me because I was very fortunate to play 10-plus years before I hurt my elbow. I see some of these young guys down here that are 12, 13 years younger than me and they're having the same surgery, and I think about how I was in A-ball, and that would have been very tough mentally to come back."

Hentgen has his career in perspective, and even if he pitches only one more month with the Orioles, his impact will have been felt.

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