Whitt's hitting gives him solid chance to catch on


SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles made no promises to Ernie Whitt when they invited him to spring training as a non-roster player.

The veteran catcher was coming off the worst full season of his major-league career, one in which he was the victim of a severely dislocated thumb and a youth movement by the Atlanta Braves that confined him to 67 games.

But halfway through spring training, it is becoming apparent that Whitt has a legitimate chance to make the team and prove his only year in the National League was a fluke.

Left-handed hitters, especially veterans such as Whitt, are prized in this Orioles camp, and his knowledge as a catcher can be valuable on roster that is depending on relatively inexperienced Chris Hoiles to do a lot of catching.

"He would give us a lot," manager Frank Robinson said of Whitt. "He can catch a smart game, knows the hitters and can handle a staff and adjust to it.

"The fact that he can go to the weakness of opposing hitters will not require that much of an adjustment. He knows what he has to do to keep ready and won't panic in tough situations.

"That will keep the other dugout thinking about going to right-handed pitchers, because there is a lot of respect for him."

In short, Whitt would be an asset if he is healthy and has something left at age 38. He said he believes he does after a major-league career that began in 1976 and has been spent mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the last original Blue Jay to leave the franchise, after 1989.

"Last season is something I like to put behind me," said Whitt, who batted .172 in 180 at-bats for the Braves. "It was the first dismal year in the last 10, and I think it came from changing leagues, not knowing the opposing pitchers and the injury.

"I had a hard time gripping the bat and feeling it in my hands after I got hurt [May 28], and by the time I was feeling right again, they were going with the kids."

Now, he says he has to prove that 1990 was an aberration, not a sign that the door has closed on his career.

"He has done nothing wrong to hurt himself," said Robinson. "But keeping a third catcher depends on a few things -- how he impresses me swinging the bat and the infield-outfield situation. If you have three catchers, you can't carry any extra at one of those places. We have to decide which way is best for the ballclub."

That indicates Whitt has a solid chance if he continues to hit as he has (a .333 average in 12 at-bats with two home runs and five RBI.

The second homer, a two-run shot, beat his former Blue Jays teammates Sunday, 3-2, and prompted a standing ovation from the Dunedin, Fla., crowd.

"It's nice when people respect you for what you've done," said Whitt, who has the top fielding percentage among active catchers (.991). "I was actually embarrassed a little bit."

Whitt said his mission is to show the Orioles he is physically sound and to perform well enough so that if they decide not to keep three catchers, another team will be interested.

"They told me up front that Bob [Melvin] and Chris are their top choices," he said. "After that, they don't know. I can accept that. The biggest thing is to accept the role if they do decide on three."

He would like to have more at-bats, but said the ones he has gotten have been "quality. I've hit the ball hard, and I still feel I can play."

Whitt said that if the trial doesn't work out and no other team picks him up, he would like to stay in the game, "but not be gone from home as much. Maybe consulting or broadcasting.

"My career has given me a position to basically be able to pick and choose. I've got some businesses in Toronto and southern Ontario, and most of my ties are in that and the Detroit areas."

But Whitt isn't ready for a rocking chair. The desire for one final season -- certainly not 1990 -- gnaws at his pride.

"You can learn from years like that," he said of last season. "But I don't want to leave the game that way."

Whitt's stats

Ernie Whitt's major-league statistics last season with Atlanta and for his career:

1'.. ..G.. AB.. R.. H.. HR.. RBI.. Avg.

180. 14. 31. 2 .. 10 .. .172

.. 1293.3712.442.923.134.. 531.. .249

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