POWER HITTER GETS ONE MORE AT-BAT IN CARDINALS TRYOUT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many young men have chased that dream of being a professional baseball player, and many have failed.

Former Andover High and Wagner's slugger Earl Williams just wants the chance to fail. That's all.

Williams, a 6-foot-1 and 215-pound power-hitting catcher/first baseman, was drafted on the 45th round by the hometown Baltimore Orioles in June 1988 and signed the following fall.

After only one year in the bushes with great stats, he was cut loose, but on March 11 he will get another shot with the St. Louis Cardinals at their St. Petersburg, Fla., camp. He leaves Wednesday.

All he hopes for is one more chance and to get cut only if he doesn't do the job and show promise.

"I've worked too hard at this game and love it too much to just forget it," the 23-year-old Williams said last week. "All I want isa fair shot to at least fail, and I'm not leaving without failing."

It was in 1989 that Williams was assigned to the Orioles' Rookie League team in Bluefield, Va. The big guy, who once hit an unmatched three home runs in one inning with the Wagner's unlimited team, put upsome big numbers at Bluefield that summer.

Williams cracked six homers, knocked in 28 runs and had six doubles in only 126 at-bats. Injust 43 games, he hit for a respectable .270 batting average, which for a power hitter is adequate.

He worked hard in the catacombs under Memorial Stadium in Baltimore that winter, anxiously awaiting spring training 1990. He was sure he was on the way to a successful pro baseball career and maybe a shot one day at the big show.

The Orioles promoted him to a Class A contract, which meant a $50-a-month raise above the minimum minor league salary of $950. Williams was excited about heading south last spring.

But just three weeks into spring training with a corps of minor-leaguers, the cold hard news came.

"I was told that I didn't have the potential to make it to the big leagues and was given my release," said Williams, whose roommate alsogot axed. "It was tough to take after the kind of numbers I put up at Bluefield."

Not about to rack up his lumber and put his glove and spikes away, Williams hooked up with the Wagner's Orioles' team runby Clayton Jacobson and played in the unlimited leagues with the club.

In only 30 games, Williams, who has what baseball people like to call light tower power, drilled 14 homers and knocked in nearly 60 runs. Yet no pro scouts came calling.

In September he was the starting catcher and batted fifth for the Arundel Suns in the 11th annualOriolelanders All-Star Baseball Game. It marked the grand opening ofthe Joe Cannon Baseball Stadium at Harmans.

Unfortunately for Williams and several others who had hoped to get the attention of the host of major-league scouts on hand, the game was shortened to four innings because of a torrential downpour complete with lightning.

Williams got to hit only twice, skying to deep center in the first inning for the final out with two mates aboard, and he drew a walk in the third frame. The Suns won the game, 4-1, but Williams didn't get a chance to show his stuff.

Determined to catch somebody's attention, Williams spent the fall and winter writing letters to every major-league club except the Orioles. Some clubs, such as the Cardinals, Oakland A's, Los Angeles Dodgers, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twinsanswered.

He jumped at the invitation to the Cardinals' minor-league camp, and hopes to impress. St. Louis has had success with Anne Arundel County players and that could be part of their interest.

Journeyman infielder Craig Wilson, an Annapolis High product, made it to the big show with the Cards last summer as a utility man and hopes to stick for good. And former Old Mill High and Florida Internationalpitcher Dennis Wiseman has emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in the Cardinals' organization.

Wiseman may pitch AA baseball this year for the Cardinals -- Williams is willing to play anywhere.

"I'll settle for anything, just want the chance," he said. "What Ineed to do on the 11th is crack a few out and make good, hard contact and show them that I can catch or play first base.

"And if things don't work out there with the Cardinals, I plan to go from camp to camp until I get a job. Somebody has got to give me a job."

Williams' power is what got him signed, and it's that power and persistencethat might get him signed again.

From Little League days at NorthGlen and Linthicum-Ferndale to high school days at Andover and beyond he has shown that he can send the ball to the outer limits.

In his last two years at Andover, Williams socked 12 homers, including seven his senior year when he hit a robust .436 with 30 RBI in only 16 games. It was that power that drew the attention of Orioles' scoutingsupervisor Jim Gilbert, who lives in Hagerstown.

Gilbert said he "couldn't understand why the Orioles didn't give him more of a look" and still thinks Williams could play with somebody. Gilbert, who signed the likes of Billy Ripken, Jim Traber and Larry Sheets, encouragedWilliams to play for the Wagner's Orioles in the summer of '88 so hecould keep close tabs on him.

Williams whacked 14 homers that summer and played in the Oriolelanders game, cracking a two-run two-bagger and hitting the baseball hard in three of his four trips to the dish. Gilbert had seen enough and signed a kid he thought was a real sleeper as a 45th-round pick.

The organization didn't see it the same way, and Williams, who says he understands how the game works, got caught up in the numbers crunch.

"I understand the inside of things and how they give guys who they have invested bonus money in more of a shot," said Williams, who didn't get a penny to sign, just a uniform and a chance. "After a while, somebody has to go, and it's usually the guys who were late-round picks like me, or free-agent signees."

And while he didn't say it, I can tell you there is also a lot ofpolitics at the decision-making level in the great game of baseball.It's especially political when it comes to fringe minor-leaguers, which is what Williams was considered to be as a late-rounder.

But the kid put up some great numbers and it's a shame he didn't get at least one more year in the Orioles organization.

I remember well a free-agent catcher out of Mount St. Joseph High and Odenton who was signed by Gilbert back in June 1979. His name was John Stefero, and he went on to play in the big show.

Stefero actually had similar numbers to Williams' in his rookie year at Bluefield. He belted eight home runs and drove in 42 while batting .275 in 200 at-bats.

By 1983,Stefero was in the big leagues with the Orioles and later played with the Montreal Expos in the National League for a season. Stefero, who is expected to play this year for Arnold in the Baltimore AnnapolisOver 30 Baseball League, was released by Cleveland two years ago andnever has been able to hook up with another club.

What helped Stefero was that he was among the minority for pro catchers -- a left-handed power hitter. Williams bats right-handed but said, "I can hit left-handed, been working on switch-hitting.

"I just want a chance to fail, and I'm not giving up this game until I do."

You have to believe there is some big-league club out there who is going to give aguy with that kind of attitude and power a chance. The least Earl Williams wants is one more chance not because he failed but because he deserves it.

Good luck this week, Earl, there are lot of us back here rooting for a guy like you.

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