'Thrill of game' inspires Orioles' Evans


Orioles general manager Roland Hemond believes Dwight Evans will be elected to the Hall of Fame. But now Evans is 39, with a back condition he admits is a concern. After 19 glorious seasons in Boston, why not retire?

Orioles manager Frank Robinson put the question to Evans in telephone conversations the last two days, and apparently he was satisfied with the veteran outfielder's answer.

By signing Evans to a one-year contract last night, the Orioles acquired a player who began his professional career when Ben McDonald was 1 1/2 years old, a hitter who terrorized not only Gregg Olson, but Dave McNally.

Why not retire?

It isn't the money: The Orioles gave Evans a $200,000 signing bonus, but did not guarantee his $600,000 base salary or more than $500,000 in incentives. At best, Evans' 1991 income will exceed $1.3 million -- utility infielder's wages, by today's standards.

Nor is it the Hall of Fame: "I'm sure that will be brought up," said Evans, who had been released by Boston but has a .272 lifetime average and is tied with Eddie Murray for the lead among active players with 379 home runs. "But that is not the reason I play."

So, what is it?

"People might not think I'm being honest," Evans said from his home in Lynnfield, Mass. "But I just love the thrill of the game. There's an excitement I can't explain. It's a natural high facing another pitcher, doing something as well as somebody who's 15-16-17 years younger -- or even better.

"It used to be a physical game, where your physical abilities would take over. Not it's almost like a mind game, where you're playing chess."

In his prime, Evans moved with the grace of a bishop, the authority of a king. He might no longer be that player, but even with a painful bone spur in his back, he batted .249 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs last season. Not impressed? Cal Ripken was the only Oriole with more RBIs (84).

A healthy Evans drove in 100 or more runs each of the three previous seasons, starting when he was 35. "I'm known for the way I take care of myself," he said. Overcoming his back condition amounts to a final challenge. The Orioles obviously believe he can succeed.

Last night's agreement became official after club physician Charles Silberstein consulted with his Boston counterpart, Arthur Pappas. "This shows our confidence he'll be OK," Hemond said. "We're signing him with the idea of paying the contract. We'd be very happy to do it."

The injury limited Evans to a designated hitter's role last season, but Robinson plans to also use him in the outfield and occasionally at first base. "We'll play it by ear," Robinson said. "On the days he needs a day off, we'll give him a day off. The main thing is to keep him fresh and healthy."

Evans knows better than to exude false confidence about his back -- "It's always the question, and it's always going to be the question," he said. During the season, he said, the spur developed into "a rose-bush thorn of half an inch, sticking into a muscle." But now it has "rounded out," and no longer stings.

There is no disk problem, no vertebrae problem, no need for surgery. Evans said he took flyballs in Oakland during the American League playoffs without pain. Hemond knows him as "one of the great outfielders in the league." The strength of his throwing arm is legend.

Robinson did not specify the number of at-bats he wanted to give Evans; frankly, his clubhouse presence will be as beneficial as anything else. The Orioles' average major-league service at the start of last season was 2.8 years, lowest in the majors. Too low, as it turned out.

"He brings experience, stature and maturity that will be helpful with the young developing kids we have," club president Larry Lucchino said. "There aren't many guys over 30 on this team. He may play a role that because of his age and experience is different than it would be on a team of established veterans."

"For two years we've gone with young players," Robinson said. "We've backed up young players with young players. That was part of the problem last year: There was pressure on young players to produce. A player like Evans who's been through the )) wars can take some of the pressure off."

In Boston, Evans never played for a World Series champion -- no, not even he is that old -- and he sounds excited about his possibilities with the Orioles, not only next year, but beyond. "Things can happen for us," he said. "It sounds strange, 'us.' But that's the way I like to talk. I mean 'us,' not me."

As for leadership, he said, "There are some leaders on that ballclub. I'm there to mix with them. I'm not coming in as a leader. I'm not coming in to step on anyone's feet. I'm there to be part of a ballclub. To me, you have to get respect from players. It's going to take time."

Respect? For starters, pitcher John Mitchell can turn over No. 24. Seriously, Evans' point is well-taken. Respect won't be automatic, especially if he breaks down. To that extent, he represents a risk, but the type the Orioles love -- a minimal investment with the potential for maximum gain.

The White Sox flew Evans to Chicago for a physical (he passed), and the hitting coach there is his old friend Walt Hriniak. Detroit, Cleveland and Montreal all expressed interest. But Evans said the Orioles' "family-oriented" atmosphere was appealing. So was the chance to play for Robinson. And the modest scale of Baltimore.

"I'm not one to live an hour away from the ballpark, I like to be close," Evans said. "I'm a hard worker. I'm at the park early, focused on baseball. I don't have time for the small stuff. I have time for baseball."

Dennis Eckersley can attest to Evans' intensity -- their running feud was the talk of the AL playoffs until a certain Rocket exploded. The young Orioles could benefit from moments like that, when winning is indeed everything, and the comfort of major-league life seems inconsequential.

Just imagine the Orioles' first trip to Fenway. Imagine Evans clearing The Wall for a late-inning victory against the team that granted his release. Imagine a happy ending to this storied career.

"I'm not trying to sneak anything by anybody," Dwight Evans said. "This is me. I want to play."

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