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8 Upper

Old and in the Way

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/1/2000

Ah, March and new beginnings! The snowdrops push up, the black-caked ice piles melt, and the daily papers bring news from the subtropics that baseball has been born once more. Throughout the grapefruit and cactus belts, young players are limbering up, honing their skills, preparing for the adjustment to the big leagues. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Orioles' Jeff Conine is studying the proper use of a third baseman's mitt.

Conine is not, to be sure, a young player. He is 33 years old and will be 34 by the All-Star break. But that does make Conine younger than all but one of the Orioles' infield regulars. And right now his transition from being a backup first baseman/left fielder to being a backup first baseman/left fielder/third baseman is the closest thing to player development that Orioles fans can look forward to in 2000. If you squint while he takes grounders, you can pretend he's a hotshot kid up from Rochester.

The real kids, unfortunately, will be right where they were last year: in a holding pattern. The rumblings of change from last September have subsided to a dull creaking—the sound of last year's lineup, a year older, trotting back onto the field. All the bases are, as the saying goes, covered. First baseman Will Clark (35 years old, 77 games, 29 RBI) got his defective elbow scoured out and has supposedly shed 20 pounds. Second baseman Delino DeShields (31, 11 doubles, 10 errors) has bounced back from the mysterious leg ailments that sidelined him last year. Third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. is, as we all know, 39 and coming off serious back surgery, which is why manager Mike Hargrove is training Conine to be his understudy.

It's just as well that Conine will be available at third. Ryan Minor, the previously anointed heir, has yet to show any sign that he's learning to hit major-league pitching, and there are no other real candidates—not since the Orioles dumped Willie Green and Willis Otanez last year to make room for veterans (including Jeff Conine).

Having used up their supply of third basemen, the O's are now squeezing the youth at other positions. With the departure of Jeff Reboulet, Jesse Garcia seems to have the utility-infield job to himself, but the rest of the youngsters are evidently going back to have to go back to Triple A, or get lost. Pitcher Calvin Maduro, a budding strikeout artist, will likely walk the plank to clear spots for the likes of Buddy Groom and Pat Rapp. Slugging first baseman Calvin Pickering and speedy center fielder Eugene Kingsale, both 23 and in need of big-league experience, will be wasting another year in the minors. And if Hargrove is to be believed, Jerry Hairston Jr. will end up on the bench or on the farm while DeShields plays second.

"I think it's only fair to give the veteran incumbent the benefit of the doubt," Hargrove told The Sun. But what counts as incumbency? DeShields' Orioles career consists of a whopping 96 games, barely ahead of Hairston's 56—and if seniority counts, Hairston made his Oriole debut in 1998, when DeShields was still playing for St. Louis. As for DeShields' overall career, who cares? In 10 seasons, he's batted .269. He's averaged 39 stolen bases a season, which is good; 18 doubles, which is feeble; and 30-odd games lost to injury, which is troubling.

Hairston, getting his first real major-league playing time last year (and nursing a torn shoulder), matched DeShields' career batting average and hit with more power than the veteran. In 50 games afield, he made no errors. It was more than the thrill of novelty that made the Oriole Park crowds fall for Hairston. A third-generation major-leaguer, the youngster was more confident, more poised, and evidently more familiar with the basics of infield defense than the veteran free agent was.

Even the Orioles' front office, obtuse as it is, noticed the booing when DeShields came back late in the season. But management had already locked its man into a contract through 2001. And so in vexation, like a coyote in a trap, the Angelos Organization has begun chewing its limbs off. The club forced star catcher Charles Johnson to go to salary arbitration for the second year running, and now is making a show of reluctance to extend his contract past this season—because, management says, they want to keep opportunities open for minor-league catcher Jayson Werth. At face value alone, this is remarkably stupid. Johnson is 28 and a spectacular defensive catcher; he's the only player in today's lineup who's likely to be a top player five years hence. The O's gave up Armando Benitez to get him because they liked his long-term potential. And Werth, by many accounts, won't even be a catcher for long; his physique is better suited to first base or the outfield. Even when they claim to be doing the right thing, the O's get it wrong.

A youth movement doesn't happen in the future; it happens in the present. It's not a matter of finding convenient veterans to get rid of, but of finding a way to get rid of the inconvenient ones—the DeShieldses and the Clarks and, yes, the Brady Andersons. It requires a team to make an affirmative decision—to recognize which young players deserve a chance and which old players are impeding them. The fans did not boo DeShields last year because they wanted to see some general purge. They booed because they wanted to see Hairston, and DeShields was in the way.

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