DeJean is hoping to get Orioles back in the hunt

Avid outdoorsman takes aim on bolstering bullpen

March 02, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles signed four top-tier free agents this offseason and this other guy, this relief pitcher, who arrives at Fort Lauderdale Stadium each morning in a camouflage truck.

That's right, camouflage.

The three-quarter-ton Dodge Ram truck has been painted the color of weeds and wetlands to help keep it hidden when Mike DeJean is on the hunt.

He gets here early, usually about 7:30 a.m., for a workout that won't begin until 10, and prepares himself for a season during which he will probably take the mound about 70 times in 162 games.

By 8:30, he's sitting at his locker and several other pitchers are seated next to him, laughing at the stories he tells in a thick, Cajun accent. The Orioles signed DeJean four days after Christmas, but it looks like he has already been here for 10 years.

"We hit it off right away," said veteran reliever Buddy Groom.

After seeing their bullpen go from a strength in 2002 to a major weakness last season, the Orioles made one significant addition. With his down-home nature and downward-breaking split-fingered fastball, DeJean is blending right into the mix.

The team's other free-agent acquisitions - Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez and Sidney Ponson - have the fortune and the fame, but the Orioles' fifth Beatle is perfectly happy in camouflage.

DeJean, 33, has been an avid hunter ever since his days growing up in Louisiana. After getting traded to Colorado in 1995, he started spending his offseasons as an elk hunting guide in the Rocky Mountains.

He no longer works as a guide, but he still drives the camouflage truck.

"Hunting, for me, is definitely a release," DeJean said yesterday, between sips from a camouflage, Ducks Unlimited coffee mug. "You hear so many people who don't like hunting and don't understand it. Maybe they don't understand the way the ecosystem needs to be balanced.

"Hunting is not about killing. Killing is the anticlimactic part. It's the preparation, it's studying the animals before the season starts, knowing what their patterns are. It's being in the outdoors."

For DeJean, pitching is much the same. He studies opposing hitters' tendencies and gets himself prepared before going on the attack. "The parallels," he said, "are really creepy when you think about it."

As a pitcher, DeJean can trace his roots to the 1992 Division II College World Series. He was a shortstop who pitched just six innings that season for Livingston University (now called the University of Western Alabama), but he faced two batters in the World Series and struck both of them out.

His coach had a friend in the stands named Leon Wurth, who scouted for the New York Yankees, and that June, the Yankees drafted DeJean in the 24th round of the amateur draft, signing him for $1,000.

He spent four seasons in the Yankees' organization and four seasons with the Rockies before getting traded to Milwaukee in 2001. That year, he posted a 2.77 ERA in 75 relief appearances.

The next spring, the Brewers lost two closers to injuries, so they thrust DeJean into that role. One day, he picked up the newspaper, and a writer had labeled him the "de-facto closer."

"You take that with a grain of salt," he said, "real deep in the wound."

DeJean wound up converting 27 of his 30 save opportunities that season. For his birthday that September, his wife, Holly, bought him a new truck - a black Ford Lightning F-150 - and he had vanity plates put on it that say, "DEFACTO."

Last year, his performance slipped a bit, and the Brewers traded him to St. Louis in late August. For the season, he converted 19 of 27 save opportunities and posted a 4.68 ERA.

He left the Cardinals as a free agent, and the Orioles were looking for someone to replace setup man Kerry Ligtenberg. So they polled some of the candidates who came through the B&O warehouse during their manager search.

Brewers bench coach Rich Dauer, the former Orioles second baseman, put in a good word for the right-hander during his interview, and though Dauer didn't get the job, DeJean did. The Orioles gave him a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

It works nicely for the DeJeans, because his wife's family lives in the Southern Maryland city of Lexington Park. The couple have a 3-year-old son, Chase, and a second child on the way.

DeJean throws three pitches: a 90- to 92-mph fastball, a curveball and a split-fingered fastball. "At times, his split is unhittable," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan.

The Orioles signed DeJean to be a setup man for closer Jorge Julio, and even though he has closing experience himself, DeJean isn't trying to steal the job.

"I think it's important, probably for Jorge more than anybody, to realize that he's the closer," DeJean said. "He doesn't deserve to have those kind of distractions. The closer's role is not really easy to do anyway. I'm here to set up and give Jorge an opportunity to come out there in the ninth inning with a clean slate and not have to worry about runners all over the place."

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