He was overweight and out of shape. He was lazy on defense and indifferent on offense. He simply couldn't handle playing for a losing team.

Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez heard all of those things last year in the midst of the toughest season of his major league career. The criticism got annoying, but he learned long ago to not take any of it personally. That changed when he started to hear the rumblings that he was coasting on the four-year, $27.5 million contract he signed with the Orioles before the 2006 season.

"I got very upset with that," Hernandez said. "I know I'm making a lot of money, and the last thing I want to hear from people's mouths is, 'He's way overpaid.' That's when I decided to work very, very hard. I'm a proud guy. If I'm making a lot of money, I have to do the job. I want them to forget how much money I make and look at me and say, 'He's playing really hard, he really cares and he's trying his best.' That's really all I want."

Hernandez reported to spring training this season re-energized, in good physical condition and without the injury problems that dogged him throughout the 2007 season. He spent two stints on the disabled list last season and was limited to just 106 games, hitting .258 with nine homers and 62 RBIs. He threw out just 20 of 88 attempted base stealers.

The numbers marked a serious regression for a player who hit .275 with 23 homers and 91 RBIs and threw out 42 of 97 attempted base stealers in 144 games in 2006, establishing himself as one of the better two-way catchers in the game.

"From the beginning of spring training last year, he was not 100 percent," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "It just escalated the whole season. I don't think he was ever healthy the whole season."

Before last season ended, Trembley met with Hernandez and urged the catcher to come to spring training in better shape than he was the year before. Orioles officials felt Hernandez's conditioning last spring contributed to the oblique injury that forced him to start the season on the disabled list and miss the first 21 games. Hernandez, 31, heeded Trembley's advice, reporting to camp this season about 10 pounds lighter and significantly leaner than he was the season before.

"They're not going to make me feel guilty, saying I needed to work out and come in better shape, because I was going to do that anyway," Hernandez said. "When you have those injuries, you have to start [preparing] earlier so you get stronger. What happened to me last year can happen to anybody. People say the injuries were because I'm out of shape, but injuries happen some years. You can't control that.

"Last year was hard. You get hurt, and then you can't do anything. Your team is losing and you can't help. I feel like I let a lot of people down because of my injuries. I tried to rush back and play as much as I could. People are used to seeing me play every day, but I just couldn't do it."

Hernandez took a month off after the season and then started his daily workouts in November. He went to his native Venezuela to play winter ball for about a month and then returned to his Florida home, where he upped his workout regimen in the weeks leading up to the start of spring training.

After team workouts or exhibition games this spring, Hernandez goes into the team's makeshift gym for his own weightlifting session, occasionally staying long after his teammates have gone home.

Trembley purposely put the lockers of Hernandez and Matt Wieters, the switch-hitting catcher taken in the first round of last year's draft, next to each other, hoping the Orioles catcher of the present would mentor the club's catcher of the future. Hernandez took the job seriously, regularly spending time before and after workouts talking to Wieters, who credited Hernandez for making him feel comfortable.

Hernandez came to Baltimore with a reputation of working well with young players, specifically pitchers. However, that took a hit last year. During one game late last season, Hernandez threw his hands up in the air and turned his back on rookie left-hander Garrett Olson, who had just failed to look a runner back to third, allowing a runner to score.

"I think last year, it got as ugly as it could get," said Hernandez, who went to the playoffs five times in six seasons before signing with the Orioles. "I think it was the ugliest year ever. We gave up 30 runs in a game, we got no-hit, we got everything. Nothing could get worse. If [stuff] goes down again, all you can do is pat your teammate on the back and say, 'Hey, keep going, do what you can do.'

"We had a bunch of young guys in Oakland, too, and we weren't supposed to do nothing, but we started to win some games and then we started to win our division. I'm not saying that we're going to win the division, but I am saying that we're going to compete a lot."

The Orioles listened to offers for Hernandez this offseason, with the New York Mets being the most aggressive suitor. But ultimately, the Orioles, who are rebuilding around their young pitching, decided it would be prudent to hold on to their veteran catcher.

Hernandez went 3-for-3 against the Washington Nationals yesterday and is hitting .286 this spring.

"We've been working every day early, putting in the hours to get that good swing back," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "What we want to do is erase last year. He was hurt all year and had to really force his swing. But I really love where he's at right now. If he maintains his stroke and builds on what we have now, he's going to be just fine."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com