FORT MYERS, FLA.—– Given what's happened in the past two years, catcher Ronny Paulino isn't fazed by his current situation.
That's what happens when you've been traded three times, suspended for failing a drug test and faced with a career-threatening health condition.
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Paulino signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles in late January and was considered a long shot to make the 25-man roster. Those odds became considerably worse when he ran into visa problems for the second consecutive year and arrived in Sarasota from his Dominican Republic home three weeks late. When he got to camp, he was overweight —which really frustrated Orioles' decision-makers.
Typically, such a scenario gets a player his early walking papers, especially from a no-nonsense manager like the Orioles' Buck Showalter.
Instead, Paulino arrived in Sarasota just in time to catch a break. Projected reserve catcher, Taylor Teagarden, was shelved with a slight tear in the ligament in his lower back that supports his disk. He has had just five at-bats this spring and is exercising and rehabbing —making it highly improbable for him to be ready by Opening Day.
Without any other catcher on the roster with significant big-league experience, Paulino emerged as the leading candidate over John Hester, who is hitless in 12 at-bats this spring. Backing up all star Matt Wieters looks like it is Paulino's job to lose.
"He has a unique opportunity here," Showalter said, "and it's not going to be just given to him if Teagarden is not available."
Paulino is a proven hitter; he's batted .273 with a .326 on-base percentage in parts of seven big-league seasons. But Showalter wants to see Paulino seize the backup job by improving defensively.
"It is the catching part of it," Showalter said. "He's got to make us feel he can do that on the days that Matt doesn't catch."
Showalter is giving Paulino plenty of chances to show what he can do while attempting to get him into shape — he's played in eight games in the past 10 days.
"He is a little rusty," Showalter said. "You can tell he is behind somewhat, but it is tough for me to manage — if you are trying to get him as many opportunities to catch up as fast as he can —without putting him in jeopardy physically. It is a very demanding position and he understands it. It is not his first time."
Paulino, who has four hits in 21 at-bats with the Orioles, said he feels, "pretty good. I feel each day I am getting better and better."
He wants to be on the Opening Day roster, which would be another step in putting his past behind him. Once thought to be the catcher of the future for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was dealt away in 2008 and kept bouncing around.
In August 2010, while with the Florida Marlins, Paulino's baseball career collapsed. He was suspended for 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy. He tested positive for a banned substance, which he said wasunbeknownst to him, in a diet pill he was taking. He said at the time it was inadvertent, but he should have known what he was taking.
"That's what it was," Paulino said Thursday. "I leave that in the past already and I have been looking forward since that happened."
Still, it was the toughest stretch of his career.
"It was a time where you have to be strong," Paulino said. "That's the time when you know your family and friends support you. You know what people you have around."
That offseason, he signed with the New York Mets and had to finish serving his suspension in April 2011. When he was finally cleared, he was immediately placed on the disabled list because he was dealing with anemia, a disorder in which the blood does not make enough healthy red blood cells. With a limited supply of oxygen, his body continually felt fatigued— disastrous for catcher handling the big-league grind.
"When you don't have enough oxygen in your blood, it gives you headaches and it makes you feel different," Paulino said. "You feel like you don't want to do much because you are so tired. Now, I feel much better. I know I can focus on what I have to do."
He changed his diet, focusing on iron-rich food and he regained his strength. In 78 games with the Mets last year, he batted .268 with two homers. He believes this year he can return to the form that made him a reliable backup.
"What I have been through the last couple of years, it is supposed to make you better because you have had tough times and you have to learn," he said. "You are more careful. You spend more time on your work. You spend more time on your body. You just know how to deal with tough times."
That's what Showalter wants to hear. He wants Paulino to prove that the opportunity —that another chance —won't be wasted.
"I hope it is, 'Take a deep breath. I've got all this behind me now. And go forward with this,'" Showalter said. "Instead of thinking about what's behind him."
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