Orioles are stuck on Flanagan, Whitt, but wary veterans remain cautious


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mike Flanagan and Ernie Whitt are making a couple of decisions easy for the Orioles -- the only question is when they will be made.

Both veterans are in camp as non-roster invitees, but their situations are not identical. The Orioles have an agreement in lTC principle with Whitt, but negotiations with Flanagan never progressed beyond the stage of a spring training invitation.

Flanagan gave up his first three earned runs of the spring here yesterday, but still had perhaps his most impressive outing. The veteran lefthander struck out seven in three innings and it was a pair of soft singles that set up all three runs with two outs in the ninth inning.

"Until we started throwing the ball around [Chris Hoiles, playing at first base, had a throwing error that might have ended the inning], that was as good a pitching performance as we've had down here with the exception of [Ben] McDonald's first start," said coach Johnny Oates. The Orioles played a pair of split-squad games against Montreal, and lost both -- 5-4 in West Palm Beach and 7-4 in the game here, which was managed by Oates.

"He looks to me like he's throwing as good as he ever did," said Montreal shortstop Spike Owen, who faced Flanagan when he was in the American League with Seattle and Boston. "His breaking ball was as good as it ever was and his fastball was running. He looked very sharp."

Whitt, who caught Flanagan the last three innings, took the club leadership in home runs, hitting his third of the spring, a two-run shot, and added a single to lift his average to .400 (8-for-20).

Though both Flanagan and Whitt appear certain to win roster spots, they are not making long-range plans. "I don't take anything for granted," said Flanagan. "There's always a numbers game.

"I remember the first time I made this team [1976]," said the veteran lefthander. "It went down to the last day between me and [lefthanded pitcher] Mike Willis. We were running in the outfield when Earl [former manager Earl Weaver] yelled out: 'Hey, Mike.' I turned around and he said, 'No, I mean Willis.' That's when I knew I made the team.

"To be honest with you I think I felt worse for him than I did good for myself. We were best friends and roommates."

It doesn't appear there will be as much drama for Flanagan's comeback attempt. He has thrown exceptionally well all five times he has appeared, seemingly removing any doubts about whether he could regain his arm strength.

"If I didn't think I could make it, I wouldn't have come down here in the first place," said Flanagan, 39. "I was throwing too good [in Memorial Stadium workouts during the winter] not to come down and try. If I had just been throwing so-so, I wouldn't have done it. As it was, as good as I felt, it took me a couple of days to make up my mind."

One of the reasons Flanagan hedged was because the Orioles were unwilling to make a commitment beyond the invitation. Without an oral agreement, it is difficult in this case to tell which side has the upper hand. The way he has thrown, there are few teams in Florida that wouldn't make room for Flanagan. It is unlikely he would play hardball with his old team, but Flanagan won't be in a poor bargaining position.

"I haven't thought about what it would be like to be on this team again," said Flanagan, "because I don't have a contract in hand. That would be getting ahead of myself. If I get a contract, then I guess I would think about it a little more.

"I don't think I could have anticipated doing this well -- or at least the results being this good," said Flanagan. "But I've tried not to put any pressure on myself and the only goal I set was to pitch well each time out."

Is he satisfied he's done that so far? "I guess you could say that," he said.

Whitt took the Orioles' invitation over two other possibilities (Toronto and California) because of the club's need for lefthanded hitting. "I'm satisfied with the opportunity I've had and I think I've proven that my hand [injured a year ago] is OK," said Whitt, 39.

"But in this game you don't know until they tell you. It would be nice to know something soon, so we could make some plans."

General manager Roland Hemond, admittedly impressed by what he has seen from Flanagan and Whitt, said the Orioles' cautious approach was the only sensible one. "You don't make decisions until you have to make them," said Hemond.

"That's why you keep sending players out there to play. Sometimes things happen that force you to change your mind."

Manager Frank Robinson, however, indicated he wouldn't let Flanagan and Whitt dangle until the final hours before Opening Day. Asked if he would make a decision on the veterans before the Orioles left Florida, the manager said: "More than likely, yes."

That would mean Flanagan and Whitt will get the official word by the middle of next week. Flanagan will likely need the extra days to work out a contract that no doubt will be laden with performance clauses.

In the meantime, it's business as usual for the two veterans who once again have the anxious feelings of rookies.

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