Quirk happy to get break he can handle


OAKLAND, Calif. -- The pitch bounced away, a curveball in the dirt, and that should have been it. The next day the Orioles were eliminated, and catcher Jamie Quirk's dream of returning to the World Series seemed more distant than ever.

If only he had blocked Gregg Olson's wild pitch. Quirk couldn't even allow himself the thought, for soon after he was unemployed. In a six-month span he was released by the Yankees, by the Oakland A's and then by the Orioles. The journeyman's Triple Crown.

"When you're released three times in one year, you're worried about getting a job," Quirk said. "The last thing on my mind going into the winter was getting back to the playoffs and World Series. First and foremost, I had to get a job."

Well, Quirk got his job -- with Oakland, no less -- and now he's back in the Series. If the story seems a tad unreal, then you've never heard of Jamie Quirk. "When the bomb goes off," Orioles advance scout Ed Farmer once said, "I want to be standing next to Jamie."

In 16 major-league seasons, Quirk has been granted free agency five times, released five times and traded twice. He turns 36 on the off-day between Games 5 and 6. If everything works out, he might be celebrating a championship by then, and reliving his final baseball dream -- a World Series at-bat.

Quirk was eligible for Kansas City in both the 1980 and '85 Series, but did not play. Now he is coming off his best season, not to mention a pinch-hit single in his only playoff at-bat against Boston. When A's manager Tony La Russa punches "K-A-R-M-A" into his computer, the answer is "Q-U-I-R-K."

Who batted .281, his career-high for 80 or more at-bats? Quirk. Who went 13-for-29 (.448) with men in scoring position, 7-for-11 (.636) with two outs? Same guy. Who threw out 10 of 20 baserunners attempting to steal? You needn't ask.

Of course, none of this seemed even remotely possible for Quirk in the days after the most fateful wild pitch in Orioles history, the one that occurred with the club leading Toronto 1-0 in the first game of last year's showdown for the AL East title.

The Orioles were four outs away from moving into a first-place tie with the Blue Jays. They were one strike away from escaping the eighth inning with Tom Lawless on third base. Then, on a 1-2 count to Kelly Gruber, Quirk called for Olson's trademark curve.

The pitch bounced away, Lawless scored and the Blue Jays won 2-1 in 11 innings. Afterward, Quirk said, "I've got to get in front of that ball. A major-league catcher must block that ball. I've got to block that ball. I've got to block that ball. I can't let it get by me."

A year later, he says, "I took it personally. I have a lot of pride in my ability. I know I'm not the greatest baseball player in the TC world. But I called the pitch. Gregg has an outstanding curveball. I don't know, truthfully, if I could have blocked it or not. But I felt I should have.

"It was crushing. We, the Orioles, had to take total advantage of the situation. It might not happen again for 10 years. We were right on the verge of getting to the playoffs. People don't realize it -- they look back and remember the A's played Toronto. They don't realize the Orioles were two days away. We, meaning the Orioles, are the only ones who remember that."

It was one of the most disappointing moments of Quirk's career, yet it was followed by one of the most dignified. Over and over again, he told reporters he was responsible for the wild pitch, even though both Olson and manager Frank Robinson insisted it wasn't his fault.

The setting was so dramatic, the pitch probably will be remembered as the one that lost the game, even though it only tied the score. Olson, then a rookie, believes Quirk "was taking the blame. But I've seen it over and over. I don't see how he could have got it."

Quirk said, "When I saw films of it, I obviously knew I couldn't block it. Truthfully, that night, I was protecting Gregg. My career is going nowhere. He'll have a long career. I didn't want him to carry that with him for a long time. Why not take the blame?

"That's something people in this game don't do enough -- make a mistake, and admit they messed up. A lot of people look for excuses. I was protecting Gregg, but until I saw the films, I thought I should have blocked it."

In any case, the season ended two days later. Quirk said he wanted to stay in Baltimore, but the Orioles did not offer him a guaranteed contract, figuring he might not make the team behind Mickey Tettleton and Bob Melvin. On Nov. 2, they granted his release.

Five weeks later, the A's guaranteed him $150,000 to be their third catcher. The money provided security for Quirk, who is married with two children, but it didn't assure him of a job. The Yankees had given him his first guaranteed contract the previous year, then released him in May.

That led to his first stint with the A's, and it lasted only two months. The Orioles signed Quirk Aug. 5, the day before Tettleton underwent knee surgery. They became Quirk's eighth major-league club, seventh (of 14) in the AL.

This year, he started 26 games at catcher for the A's, two at third base, and also played first base and rightfield. Who was 4-for-11 with a home run as a pinch hitter? Quirk.

"It was my best all-around year in baseball in a long, long time," he said. "I've done everything the A's asked me to do, and I feel I've done it well. A lot of people in baseball didn't think I could play a lick anymore.

"Here I am with the best team in baseball, maybe the best team in many, many years. They're happy with me. It really makes you wonder about the opinions people have of your abilities. It's been very enjoyable in that aspect."

Next year? Quirk has no idea if he'll fit into the A's plans, but he's found work ever since Whitey Herzog, his former manager in Kansas City, suggested he learn to catch in 1978. Herzog said the versatility might add 10 years to Quirk's career.

As it turned out, Herzog underestimated the value of that rare baseball species, the lefthanded-hitting catcher. Quirk has only 1,886 career at-bats -- about three seasons worth for a regular like Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken -- but here he is, in his third World Series.

Olson's pitch bounced away.

Quirk, as always, bounced back.

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