Orioles' new infield springs into first full-squad workout

Tejada, Palmeiro hoping to give team new direction

Orioles

February 26, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - At 10 minutes past noon yesterday, longtime Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks steered his golf cart into position at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and sounded the air horn.

Within moments, the key components of a vastly improved Orioles infield were in place together for the first time, going through the first cadences of a long season.

Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo took a knee behind the pitcher's mound and tossed grounders to $72 million shortstop Miguel Tejada, who quickly fed the balls to a rotating quartet of second basemen that included two friends fighting for the starting job: Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts.

All-Star Melvin Mora was at third base, fielding grounders at a position he can finally call his own. And at first base, Rafael Palmeiro was showing off the skills that helped him win three Gold Glove Awards in the late 1990s.

In September, the Orioles had a starting infield of B.J. Surhoff at first base, Roberts or Hairston at second base, Tony Batista at third base and Deivi Cruz at shortstop.

"It's totally different than last year, so it'll take some time for us to come together," Palmeiro said. "But it's exciting to have all the new guys."

At 12:30, Hendricks sounded the horn again. Javy Lopez, the new $22.5 million catcher, walked inside the batting cage behind home plate and set a target for Sidney Ponson, the $22.5 million pitcher.

The first full-squad workout of the spring was less than an hour old, and six of the central pieces in the Orioles' rebuilding effort were taking center stage under the watchful eye of new manager Lee Mazzilli.

With an overcast sky, fewer than 200 fans were scattered throughout the rustic stadium as Mazzilli turned his players loose for the first live hitting sessions of the spring.

Early in camp, the pitchers always have the advantage over the hitters, and as Ponson pumped fastballs toward Lopez's mitt, the first unlucky batters were catcher Carlos Mendez and right fielder Jay Gibbons.

Several of the pitches were hit - straight into the other side of the batting cage.

"Not fun at all," Gibbons said.

And still, it was baseball.

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan studied the scene intently from the home dugout, like two architects eager to see their best designs come to life.

Mazzilli kept making the rounds, talking with players at their positions and near the batting cage. Earlier, he had delivered an extended version of the speech he gave Saturday, before the pitchers and catchers had their first workout.

"He said, `We don't want to be competitors; we want to be contenders,' " Gibbons said. "That's what stuck out for me."

Former manager Mike Hargrove could have said the same thing last spring, and the message might not have stuck. It's easier to believe in your team's abilities when you're surrounded by players such as Tejada, Lopez and Palmeiro - a group that combined to slug 108 home runs last year.

"Those guys," Roberts said, "didn't come here to lose."

Palmeiro, who returned to the Orioles after five years in Texas, talked all about his reasons for coming back, and one of those was a desire to play first base.

Under Perlozzo's tutelage, Palmeiro won the Gold Glove Award with the Orioles in 1997 and 1998. He won it again with Texas in 1999, but an ankle injury limited him to 108 games at first base and 46 games at designated hitter in 2000.

Last year, Palmeiro was healthy all season, but the Rangers decided to let Mark Teixeira get the bulk of the playing time at first base and left Palmeiro as the DH.

"That's all behind me now," Palmeiro said. "I'm ready to play first base every day."

Hendricks, who is starting his 36th season in an Orioles uniform, kept blowing the horn every 10 minutes, and eventually Palmeiro took his sweet swing into the batting cage.

After Ponson left the mound, Eric DuBose went in to pitch, followed by Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Omar Daal and John Stephens. Matt Riley missed the session with a sprained ankle, but the order Mazzilli used his pitchers might have been telling as he begins to determine the starting pitching rotation.

Asked if people should read into that, Mazzilli said, "No. I think I have somewhat of a preliminary idea of what I'm thinking about, but no."

Later in practice, as a light drizzle started falling, Perlozzo went to shortstop and had a long talk with Tejada. Perlozzo, an infield guru, has coached some pretty good shortstops - a list including Barry Larkin, Alex Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel and Mike Bordick - and he was eager to get to know his new pupil.

"I told him I'll learn some things from him, and I could guarantee him he'll learn some things from me," Perlozzo said. "And we both got on the same page today. It was a fun conversation."

At 1:30, the rains forced the Orioles from the field, but Mazzilli was hardly looking at the first workout as a washout.

"It was a good day," Mazzilli said. "We lost maybe six minutes of the [practice]; that was it. The guys had smiles on their faces - that's important."

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