Education begins at O's home


FREDERICK -- This is the bare bones of professional baseball, an instructional program that is also designed to be educational.

What the Orioles have tried to accomplish here this fall has been labeled innovative, even revolutionary. It is also being called a risky experiment that will cost about $125,000.

Instead of participating in a Florida league against other professional organizations, as they have done for the past 30 years, the Orioles have moved their crash training course into their back yard. (The Orioles estimate it would've cost $160,000 if they had stayed in Florida.) They have assembled 40 players, mostly top, young prospects from the last two drafts, for the purposes of teaching and evaluating, with emphasis on the former.

There is no glamour -- or salary -- for the players involved. It is basically a volunteer exercise in an effort to enhance career advancement. In return for anywhere from six to 10 hours a day on the field, players are given room and board, one meal a day -- and $20 per diem.

"That's one reason why it's tough to ask anybody to come two years in a row," said Doug Melvin, the Orioles' director of player development. "That's why it is also tough to ask older guys to come."

"There are no players who have acquired "marquee" status, and only a handful of recent draft choices -- such as pitcher Jeff Williams, outfielder Keith Schmidt and infielders Manny Alexander and Pete Rose -- could be classified as familiar names. Except for a handful of scouts, friends and curiosity seekers, the stands are generally empty. Game competition is provided by area college teams who engage in fall programs.

For the eight minor-league instructors taking part, it is business as usual. Fundamentals, familiarization with organizational procedure, and additional work, primarily for players just getting started, or those rehabilitating after an injury.

It was during this program a year ago that the Orioles decided Anthony Telford should be protected on the major-league roster. They may have a similar decision this year with Ossie Peraza, who like Jose Mesa was obtained in the Mike Flanagan trade three years ago and subsequently underwent surgery.

But this is not meant to be a rehab center, but an indoctrination, an introduction to the Orioles' organization. It is a baseball boot camp, without anyone being drummed out.

"We'll have a lot of teams watching us to see how this works," said one minor-league official, acknowledging that the program represented something of a gamble.

"The problem," said one scout from outside the organization, "is that the competition isn't going to be consistent enough to get a true evaluation. There's only so much you can learn from it."

Melvin, who is primarily responsible for the experiment, doesn't deny that the program has its drawbacks, but he thinks they are outweighed by the positive aspects. "There are no tricks to an instructional program," he said. "Evaluation is not that important to us right now -- all of these guys are going to play somewhere next year. Nobody is going to get released based on what we see here. What we're trying to do is give them an education along with the instructional part."

For about one-third of the players, part of that education is exposure to a new language and customs for the first time. "It gives us a chance to bring over some of the players we've signed from the Dominican Republic, and it's a big thing for them to be invited," said Melvin. "It gives them a chance to get acclimated before spring training.

"It also gives us a chance to look at our younger players. Most of the ones we're using would be college sophomores."

The big benefit, Melvin thinks, is the proximity to the major-league team and the chance for young players to learn something about the area. "A big plus was having everybody here to see Frederick win the Carolina League championship," said Melvin. "It gave them a chance to appreciate the park [Grove Stadium] and the atmosphere.

"They're able to follow the major-league team on television and make two or three trips to see games at Memorial Stadium. We've visited the Naval Academy and taken them on a tour of Washington, things that help break up the monotony of an instructional league program. In Florida you're in the same city, same park, playing the same team and seeing the same faces every day, and I think it gets monotonous."

Another aspect of the program that is appealing to Melvin is that it enables players to simulate a major-league season. "We would just be starting to play in Florida now," he said. "The players would go home for a couple of weeks, get out of baseball shape, then come back and have to go through a training routine.

"This way, we took two days off, and we'll play almost as many games [30-35] in five weeks as we would have in eight weeks in Florida, and the kids get to play some night games. And the players have a better chance to go home and find a job in the offseason."

Weather has been a factor; there were three postponements in the first three weeks and another one yesterday. Most of the college teams had barely started when the games began.

Asked to appraise the program, which ends Sunday, Melvin said: "We're satisfied. I've asked our people not to comment on it until we're completely done and we've had a chance to evaluate the whole program."

It's difficult to say if the Orioles are ready to make a commitment to the future of their instructional program. But, with Melvin emphasizing the instructional and educational aspects over hard evaluations, the prospects are good that the trial balloon will stay up for more than one year.

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