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Orioles check out Evans' back and like what they see


One morning last week, while many Baltimore Orioles fans were searching for their favorite eggnog recipes, Dwight Evans was meeting with a key member of his new team in a hotel room near Boston's Logan Airport.

Cal Ripken and Randy Milligan were miles away. Instead, Evans, who agreed to a one-year contract with the Orioles earlier this month, had a date with Charles Silberstein, the team's orthopedic surgeon. Silberstein had flown up from Baltimore to examine Evans and see what various doctors had been assuring him.

For the Orioles, Silberstein's exam yielded good news. After two years of pain and occasional agony, Evans' back appeared fine. And the probable cause of his pain -- a stress fracture within a bone spur -- had "for all intents and purposes" healed, the doctor said.

Based on the findings, Silberstein said, he is bullish on Evans' continued good health in 1991.

"There's no reason to think this thing will cause him the same difficulty this coming season," Silberstein said of Evans' back.

Beyond that, you don't get too many guarantees from sports doctors.

"There's always a possibility that some violent physical activity could stir things up," Silberstein said. He said the greatest risks to Evans would be from "diving and landing on his right hip."

One thing is clear, though. Along with Ben McDonald's blisters, Gregg Olson's occasionally tender elbow and Bill Ripken's haircut, the Orioles have a new body part to pay attention to.

Why are they knowingly taking on a potential problem?

They believe a healthy Evans, even at 39, will fill many roles -- that of a power-hitting, right-handed hitting DH, a solid right fielder who could play in as many as 50 games, a strong veteran leader in a clubhouse filled with 23-year-olds.

More important, they believe Evans can stay healthy.

"I have optimistic expectations, and I'm not generally an optimistic guy," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said.

But the next minute, Lucchino acknowledged the dangers.

"Certainly it's not without risk. We'd never suggest that it's risk-free," he said of the Evans' signing. "But we thought it was a measured risk, one worth taking for a player of Evans' character and quality."

Even Evans, who'd rather hit into a triple play than admit a negative thought, occasionally lets his guard down. During a telephone interview this week, he explained why he agreed to a contract with the Orioles that contains only $300,000 in guaranteed money. Evans can earn another $1 million next season, but only if he meets an array of performance incentives.

"I've explained my whole situation to them. I've tried to be honest and upfront about everything that has gone on," Evans said. "Some clubs wanted me to commit to playing the outfield. I'm not going to lie and say I can if I'm not sure I can. With this contract, if anything does happen, [the Orioles] are protected."

Evans knows his back well enough to know he can't guarantee how it'll feel tomorrow morning, much less on Opening Day. He prefers not to rehash the details of the pain and uncertainty he has lived with, and says he cannot recall precisely how the injury occurred.

Evans said the Red Sox were in Minneapolis in August 1989 when he noticed the first throb. The next day, he said, he went through his usual pre-game routine but couldn't loosen up his back.

It wasn't until spring training of the following season that the pain was diagnosed. A small bone spur had developed at the right sacroiliac joint. Evans' symptoms -- pain so sharp it sometimes prevented him from holding a newspaper -- weren't the result of the bony growth, but of a stress fracture that apparently had irritated surrounding muscles and nerves.

Evans, one of baseball's all-time premier defensive outfielders, had to hang up his glove late in the 1989 season because his back throbbed when he charged a batted ball. When the cycle of pain began, it was days before it could be broken.

"Once it was irritated, it wouldn't let up," Evans said.

For most of last season, Evans remained in the Red Sox lineup as a designated hitter. But his power waned. He almost always appeared to be in pain.

"Once his back started acting up, I don't think he was ever 100 percent. It was something he lived with every day," said Al Bumbry, a former Orioles outfielder and now the Red Sox first-base coach.

Evans contemplated surgery to remove the spur. He received a cortisone shot in his buttock. Oddly, his recovery began last September only after he suffered an allergic reaction to a myelogram, a test that requires dye to be injected around the spinal cord. Evans was confined to bed for 10 days with nausea, dizziness and severe headaches. But when the siege was over, the pain in his back was gone.

Evans assumes that lying in bed allowed the fracture to heal. He was looking forward to playing his 20th season with the Red Sox when team officials notified him that they weren't going to pick up his option.

Evans declined to address the rumors -- that Boston's decision was based as much on his not-so-private feud with Red Sox manager Joe Morgan as his shaky health. He said only: "I don't know the real reason I was let go. I've heard a number of things. I don't want to get into them."

The Orioles wanted Evans for his experience and for the clutch hits he is likely to produce if he's healthy. And though they haven't be willing to play medical roulette very often, they were able to put aside their doubts about Evans' back. That wasn't the case a couple of months ago when they chose not to pick up the $400,000 price tag on Joe Price's 1991 contract, citing the left-hander's history of back problems.

Lucchino, though avoiding mention of Price, appeared to draw a distinction between the two players. In Evans' case, he said, "We weren't dealing with a set of bulging disks that were a ticking time bomb."

With Evans, the Orioles also were dealing with a player who insists on being paid only if he plays. In negotiations, team officials asked Evans to accept an option for 1992 that would have included a six-figure payment to Evans if the Orioles had decided not to exercise the final year.

Evans declined.

"I feel good about that," he said this week. "Let me prove myself. If I don't, I'd feel terrible sitting on the bench or at home, collecting money."

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