Oft-uprooted Darensbourg, Bottalico, Byrdak, Brower seek home in O's bullpen

Footing shaky on middle ground

Orioles

March 05, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- They are the ultimate itinerants, talented enough to have earned big league work into their 30s but always two bad months away from looking for another job.

In your average spring training camp, there will be four or five of them competing for one spot, maybe two.

Their travelogues are often the most striking aspects of their resumes.

They are middle relievers.

In the Orioles' camp this year, there's Todd Williams, who finally has a near-guaranteed job after 15 years of drifting. And there's Winston Abreu, who has pitched professionally for 12 years without reaching the majors. In between those poles are Jim Brower, Vic Darensbourg, Ricky Bottalico and Tim Byrdak.

All four have posted good seasons in the big leagues. None is sure to have a job in Baltimore come April 3.

They all sound rather Zen after years of trying to focus on pitching amid the swirl of wives, babies, arm surgeries and near-annual relocations.

"It's always just play and don't think about anything else," said Darensbourg, a diminutive left-hander who has pitched for five major league and five minor league teams in the past three years.

"Your middle relievers are probably going to be veteran guys who can handle any situation and aren't gonna [fade] in the late innings," said fellow lefty Byrdak, who stands a good chance to make the club after pitching ably last season.

"I mean, it's not just me," said Bottalico, a former closer turned nomad. "A good percentage of these guys go from team to team every year. We're the parts they're most willing to change."

Brower learned that after he pitched himself ragged, throwing in 89 games for the San Francisco Giants two years ago, only to be released by the club a few months into the 2005 season.

"I threw my heart out and I almost threw my arm out," Brower said. "That's the hard part, where you feel expendable. And I didn't think I was."

Of the four, only Brower made more than $1 million last year, and his $1.16 million contract was less than half the major league average of about $2.5 million.

Manager Sam Perlozzo crystallized the game's unsentimental view of these drifters. Of having so many in camp, Perlozzo said, "It's only important if they're good enough to pitch for us."

Apostle of calm

Brower was done throwing on a recent morning, but he sat on a metal bench beside an auxiliary field, watching starter Bruce Chen mix off-speed pitches.

"That's the best combination in all of sports," he said to a few younger players seated beside him. "A curveball to a changeup."

Brower, 33, has pitched in 14 cities during his 11-year career, but at least he has stayed in the majors almost nonstop since 2001.

He came up as a starter with the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds but after the Cincinnati coaches realized he could pitch three or four days in a row without tiring, a reliever was born.

As Chen left the mound and new teammates plopped beside Brower, he continued.

"Good swinging yesterday," he told third baseman Fernando Tatis, who's trying to revive a once-promising career. "The way you went to right field, real nice."

Then, he and long reliever John Halama shared Barry Bonds stories. "You can make your pitch, and he won't just get a hit, he'll beat you," said Brower, who played with Bonds for 2 1/2 seasons.

"The most relaxed person wins," Brower told infielder Howie Clark.

Last year, Brower experienced a quintessential middle reliever season. He started with a secure job with the Giants but a bad month ended his 2 1/2 -year tenure in San Francisco. Then, he caught on with the Atlanta Braves and ended up pitching 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs.

Brower expected Braves officials to offer him arbitration. He waited and waited, but Atlanta cut him loose. He had to find a job on short notice. So he looked to Baltimore, where the Braves' pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, had relocated.

"You never know how it gets to the point where you're fighting for a spot," Brower said.

Brower now has to sell himself to a manager who hasn't seen him pitch much, since he has toiled mostly in the National League. He figures it can't hurt that he has started, pitched in long relief and worked the eighth inning.

"I'll keep pitching," he said, "until I get tired of talking myself up or my wife gets tired of the lifestyle."

Little lefty

Darensbourg never thought of himself as much more than a specialist, destined to trick left-handed hitters in the late innings.

What else would anyone expect of a 5-foot-10, 170-pound pitcher who doesn't impress the radar gun?

Darensbourg, 35, opened his career with an unusual degree of job security. He broke camp with the Florida Marlins in 1998 and struck out 74 batters in 71 innings. His fastball reached the low 90s then and he mixed in a slider.

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