Baseball's night-heavy schedule conflicts with Jeff Conine's
other favorite pastime--watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
During one of the Orioles' trips to New York last year he scored
tickets to a taping of the show, courtesy of his sister-in-law,
one of the producers. Host Regis Philbin engaged Conine in some
on-air chitchat, and the experience got the player's competitive
juices going. "They told me they'd be doing a celebrity show and
said they'd give me a call," he says. "I didn't get the call.
Too bad, because when I watch at home, I do pretty well."
Conine can take heart that he was Baltimore's lifeline in 2001,
providing the answer to the question, Does this team have any
offense? Consigned to backup duty and considered trade bait when
the team broke camp last spring, he got off to a fast start and
by mid-May was the every-day cleanup hitter. The results passed
for over-the-top in the team's punchless lineup. He hit .311
(10th best in the American League) with 14 home runs and led the
team in RBIs (97, the only Oriole to drive in more than 68) and
runs (75). His .400 average with runners in scoring position was
the league's third highest. As it was, Baltimore scored the
second-fewest runs (687), had the second-worst batting average
(.248) and was shut out the most times (14) in the AL. Where
would the club have been without Conine? "I don't even want to
think about that," says G.M. Syd Thrift.
For the 35-year-old Conine it was a career renaissance, his
first every-day gig since he helped the Marlins win the World
Series in 1997. He also showed his versatility--he made starts
at first base, third base, leftfield, rightfield and DH--and
low-key leadership, a valued commodity on a team that's
searching for an identity for the first time in two decades.
With the retirement of icon Cal Ripken Jr., there's no longer a
distraction from the fact that the team hasn't had a winning
season in five years.
Conine, who was given Ripken's corner locker in the spring
training clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale, likely will assume the
role of clubhouse elder on a team that counts 27 players on the
40-man roster with three years of major league experience or
less. He already counsels some of them about on- and off-field
matters. "He doesn't talk much, but when he does, you listen,"
says outfielder Jay Gibbons, 25, who led the team with 15 homers
as a rookie last year, though his season was cut short in August
by a broken right hand. "If you don't, he'll put you in a
headlock. He's got a strong grip."
Ripken's departure might loosen things up for some young
players. "I admit the first month of the season I didn't say a
word to him, I was so scared to death," says Gibbons. "When I
broke my hand, I was embarrassed to look at him--he played all
those games, and here I was hurt in my first season."
Baltimore's pitchers had plenty of reasons to be red-faced as
well. The Orioles ranked 22nd in the league with a 4.67 ERA, and
there's no guarantee that they'll be better this season.
Righthander Scott Erickson is trying to come back from last
year's elbow surgery, and the bullpen is filled with players who
have strong arms (Kris Foster, Jorge Julio and Willis Roberts)
but little experience.
Another change from the Ripken era: The title of Conine's
favorite game show is now a legitimate question in the Baltimore
clubhouse. The team's payroll has been reduced from $83 million
two years ago to about $40 million, and Thrift says he didn't
chase free agents this winter because the team is determined to
let its youngsters develop. How much they mature will determine
whether Baltimore finishes fourth or fifth in the AL East.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Conine didn't land a spot on the celebrity edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but he qualifies as a luminary on the anonymous Orioles.
COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/GETTY IMAGES PONSON
Orioles leadoff batters hit .192 with a .287 on-base percentage
last season, both major league lows.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Orioles
"I think the Orioles could be vastly improved.... On most teams
Chris Singleton is probably a fourth outfielder, but he's 100
times better than Brady Anderson was last year. Singleton's
problem is that he's overaggressive at the plate--he swings at
too many pitches.... Is there any more underrated player than
Jeff Conine? If you make a mistake and he's looking for it,
you're dead.... Tony Batista still hits the fastball really
well, but he tries to pull everything and is a big-time free
swinger.... Mike Bordick has lost some range, but he's steady
enough. If they give him enough rest, he'll be solid.... People
are losing patience with Jerry Hairston. He still has oodles of
ability, but he hits too many balls in the air trying for the
homer.... Jay Gibbons is a legit power guy with a live bat....
Melvin Mora has been overexposed as a starter the past two
years, but he's a very valuable utility guy. He can play short
or center and hold his own.... Brook Fordyce is not a starting
catcher, but he has the contract of one. Geronimo Gil, who
swings the bat well, is a good receiver and has a dynamite arm,
should be playing every day.... Sidney Ponson has No. 1 stuff,
but he can't keep his concentration. He'll never be more than a
No. 3.... Jason Johnson is a tall kid with long arm action, so
he has to be conscious of his delivery. Last year he really
gained consistency.... They'll miss Cal Ripken because he was
the attraction for that team. When they're 20-35, it could get
projected roster with 2001 statistics
PLAYER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
2B Jerry Hairston Jr. R 177 .233 8 47 29
CF Chris Singleton L 199 .298 7 45 12
1B David Segui S-L 186 .301 10 46 1
RF Jeff Conine R 97 .311 14 97 12
DH Jay Gibbons L 169 .236 15 36 0
3B Tony Batista R 163 .238 25 87 5
LF Marty Cordova R 141 .301 20 69 0
C Brook Fordyce R 317 .209 5 19 1
SS Mike Bordick R 205 .249 7 30 9
OF Chris Richard L 150 .265 15 61 11
IF Melvin Mora R 273 .250 7 48 11
PITCHER PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA
RH Jason Johnson 83 10 12 6.1 1.38 4.09
RH Josh Towers 102 8 10 6.6 1.29 4.49
RH Sidney Ponson 130 5 10 6.0 1.43 4.94
RH Scott Erickson* 155 5 8 5.8 1.88 7.87
RH Rick Bauer (R) 274 0 5 5.5 1.33 4.64
PITCHER PVR W L S WHIP ERA
RH Willis Roberts 107 9 10 6 1.49 4.91
LH Buddy Groom 111 1 4 11 1.11 3.55
RH Jorge Julio (R) 202 1 1 0 1.59 3.80
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings
pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched PVR: Player
Value Ranking (explanation on page 154)
third season with Baltimore
fourth in AL East
IN THE FIELD
with defensive ratings