SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles would like to know how much Dwight Evans will be able to play in the outfield this season, but they were happy yesterday just to see him spend a few innings out there.
Evans, whose presence in the defensive lineup would significantly improve the club's offensive potential, made his 1991 outfield debut in the Orioles' 9-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox yesterday at Ed Smith Stadium.
It was not very eventful, but that didn't matter. This is not &L; another Randy Milligan experiment. Evans probably could play the outfield in his sleep if his 39-year-old body would allow it. It's more a matter of seeing how he'll hold up under the rigors of regular outfield play.
He is coming off knee surgery and playing with a chronic back injury, but he was back at the position where he won eight Gold Gloves and he was enjoying every minute of it.
"I felt good just being out there," Evans said. "There were some little aches and pains, but I'm right where I want to be at this point. It was fun."
It had been 19 months since he last played competitively in right field, but there was no sign of awkwardness or uncertainty. He left the game in the fifth inning after getting the Orioles' only hit off White Sox starter Alex Fernandez.
"Being out there meant a lot to me because that's where I love to be," said Evans. "It was difficult, because with the background here you couldn't see the ball out of the pitcher's hand, but everything's coming back. It's just a matter of timing and anticipation."
It's still too early for manager Frank Robinson to anticipate anything, but Evans' brief appearance was an important step toward the roster flexibility he has long coveted.
"That's what I want to do," Evans said. "I want to give him every advantage I can."
He hopes to play a lot more over the next couple of weeks, but he refuses to look past today's game. The possibility of a setback will always be there, and the pressure to play a lot of innings will not.
"Dwight Evans could go out there without one inning in spring training and play the outfield on Opening Day," Robinson said. "I'm not looking to see if he can play it. I'm looking to see if he is physically up to going out there."
Evans approached Robinson early yesterday and said he was ready to give it a try. He had made a few appearances as the designated hitter, but soreness and swelling in his right knee had made him reluctant to rush into the field.
"I had about three more days before I was going to talk to him about it," Robinson said. "He knows what he needs to do and he knows how he feels."
Robinson said last week that he could wait only so long before he would have to make a decision on his defensive alignment. He left Evans in charge of his spring-training regimen, but only to the point where the club would have to begin evaluating the overall makeup of the roster. He needed to know that Evans was a realistic possibility in right.
"He came to me and said he wanted to go out and try it," Robinson said. "I told him I'd already made out the lineup card. He said, 'If it's no trouble, I'd really like to try it today.' I said, 'No problem, I think we can find a new lineup card somewhere.' "
Evans had not played competitively in the outfield since August 1989, when a lower-back problem forced him into a full-time designated hitter role. He told the Orioles when he signed with them in December that he intended to return to right field, but Robinson told him at the start of spring training that he would be a welcome addition to the club even if he could only perform as a DH and a pinch hitter.
"He really took the pressure off me when he did that," Evans said. "Frank's had a lot of patience with me. I really appreciate that. I couldn't ask for any more."