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Jim Palmer aside, Orioles have much to be excited about


SARASOTA, Fla. -- The wind was howling here at the Orioles' spring training site yesterday, but no one's hairpiece flew off. The Orioles aren't that old.

They are remarkably familiar, though.

This is spring training as family reunion. Bring your photo album. When I arrived here, I guess I was like everyone else: I couldn't wait to see my favorite old Oriole back on the field, and there he was, in all his glory, evoking such wonderful memories. Gosh, it's great to see Larry Sheets again.

Will Sheets make the club? My guess is that he won't, but, in the former Orioles derby, I think he has a better chance than Jim Palmer but not as good a shot as Mike Flanagan.

Flanny, as we came to know him, is left-handed and only 39. He is welcome. Palmer is Palmer. Nobody says this, but the Orioles can't be that excited to have him here. They are glad, though, that the return of the prodigal pitcher hasn't turned into a circus. So far, it's just Palmer throwing batting practice, and a crowd gathering. Just about the same thing happens when Ben McDonald throws.

"I was afraid it would be a distraction," said one Orioles official. "But it really hasn't been."

Actually, Palmer's presence has given added flavor to an already interesting mix. The Palmer story has no real downside. If he makes it back, it's one of the great sports stories of our time, and if he doesn't, it was fun while it lasted and the Orioles got a lot of free air time.

There is real business to be done here, though. "Everyone is excited," said Randy Milligan. "You can see it on people's faces."

The Orioles think they have something going. And they're going to spend much of the spring trying to figure out what it is. There are a couple of grand experiments that are less sexy but ultimately more important than Palmer's scientific research into aging.

The old player who matters most is Dwight Evans. His knee has been sore. And he walked into the trainer's room yesterday with some sortof pack (ice or heat) on his back. Can he play the outfield anymore? Can he hit anymore? And if he can, what does he have that all the other 39-year-olds don't?

"We're not going to rush him," manager Frank Robinson said. "He has all the time in the world. We know what his skills are. We just need to know how he is physically."

Then there's Milligan, who is fine physically, but whose skills are in question as he gets reintroduced to the outfield. He played there before, but it was so long ago that Palmer hadn't retired for the first time (believe me, the second is just a shot away).

"It's pretty obvious why I'm out there," said Milligan, who is being supplanted at first base by Glenn Davis and his anticipated 30 to 35 homers. "If I can play left and Dewey [Evans] can play right and Sam [Horn] can play DH, we could have a lineup that would scare some people."

That's the idea. It has been years since the Orioles scared anyone but themselves, and that included two seasons ago when they almost won the thing. So, they got Davis and they got Evans and they hope that someone is going to provide some punch at third base and they hope that, with Evans batting behind him, that a new Cal Ripken would approximate the old Cal Ripken.

"I was excited before I got here," Robinson was saying yesterday. "And I'm more excited now."

But he'll be busy. To begin with, he has to find a leadoff hitter.

love Brady," Robinson said of Brady Anderson and the only true leadoff hitter the Orioles have. "I'd love Brady to force me to play him. That's what I'm hoping for this spring."

He has to find a third baseman. Leo Gomez will push Craig Worthington, and the loser will lose big time, probably to a trade.

"I like to say it's Craig's job to lose," Robinson said. "But Leo couldput a lot of pressure on him."

The catching job is nobody's to lose, since Mickey Tettleton was dumped, but either Bob Melvin or Chris Hoiles will win it. Who will be throwing to whom remains an open question, or at least one Robinson isn't yet willing to answer. But I don't think the decision-making process is going to be that tough.

Though Ben McDonald is the only certain starter, Robinson says he's impressed with the arm strength shown so far by Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki. Pencil them in. Dave Johnson, however much respect he is not accorded, will be there, I promise. And unless Jose Mesa blows up this spring, he'll be there, too.

That's why the Orioles are excited. They have a young, promising pitching staff and more than the promise of a lineup with power. And so if everyone wants to watch Palmer this spring, no one really minds. Because if things work out, there could be an entire summer of Orioles worth seeing.

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