Finley takes the lead Given everyday shot, ex-Bird emerges with Astros


PHILADELPHIA -- Steve Finley is gone, but judging from th way scouting director Gary Nickels assesses two recent draft picks, the Orioles can't get him out of their minds.

Nickels describes No. 5 pick Jim Wawruck as a "Steve Finley type," and hints No. 13 pick Jim Audley could advance in the same rapid fashion after a comparable college career.

The original article, of course, now plays for Houston, where he ithriving as the regular leadoff hitter and centerfielder for a team every bit as bad as the Orioles.

The Glenn Davis trade was full of surprises, from Davis' rare neck injury to Pete Harnisch's metamorphosis into a dominant starter. Finley, however, always was expected to succeed. Orioles hitting coach Tom McCraw predicted he'd be a star.

Finley, 26, isn't there yet, but with the season nearlhalf-complete, he's playing his usual sound defense and batting .285 with five homers, 12 stolen bases and 21 RBIs. What's more, he leads the Astros in total bases, a statistic usually dominated by sluggers.

That might not be saying much -- the Astros are so inepoffensively, they have more hits than their opponents but 76 fewer runs. Still, Finley is emerging as a solid everyday player. In Baltimore, he rarely got the chance.

There's no sense second-guessing the trade -- it was the righmove at the time -- but the Orioles must wince knowing Finley now has more homers than Davis (5-4) after going 1-for-3 with a two-run shot and a walk in last night's 7-3 loss to Philadelphia.

Harnisch, meanwhile, leads the NL with a .184 opponents' batting average and ranks third with a 2.20 ERA. He already has 12 quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or less). The entire Orioles' staff has just 27.

Manager Art Howe claims Harnisch (4-5) should "definitely bconsidered for the All-Star team." He can't say the same about the inconsistent Curt Schilling (3-5, 4.86 ERA, five saves), the third player in the trade. But that's a minor concern, compared to the Orioles' worries over Davis' injury and his pending free agency.

Indeed, it hurts just thinking about what might have been. Finleya lefthanded hitter, was a particular favorite of new manager John Oates. With Brady Anderson still struggling, it's almost certain he would have been a regular by now.

His average against lefthanders last year was only .193. Thiyear it's a respectable .264. Howe stuck with him through a 6-for-56 slump from April 13 to May 1. Finley responded by hitting .350 in May, and went from batting second to leading off.

Former Orioles manager Frank Robinson spent two seasonrotating his young outfielders, partly because they kept getting injured, partly because they didn't merit playing full-time. Mike Devereaux now has the same role in Baltimore as Finley in Houston. Not coincidentally, each is having his best season.

Finley, of course, is much happier as a regular, but he's carefunot to criticize Robinson. "That was the way he chose to manage," says Finley, who hit .256 with three homers and 37 RBIs in 464 at-bats last season. "You can't argue with that. He had success in '89 doing that.

"He was the manager. If that's the way he felt he could win, ididn't matter if the players agreed or not. We had so many outfielders. He did a good job getting us all playing time. But it would have been nice to get the chance to play every day. I know I could have done the job for them."

It's funny, because Howe recalls Astros officials raving morabout Finley's defense than his offense at the time of the trade. But assistant general manager Bob Watson says, "I talked to Tom McCraw. Tom said the guy had the potential to drive the ball."

McCraw first predicted great things for Finley before his rookiseason in '89, then repeated his claim the following spring. Oates' history with Finley dates to '88, when he engaged in a friendly power struggle with assistant general manager Doug Melvin over whether to promote him to Triple A.

Finley started the year at Class A, but Oates, then the Rochestemanager, got his man. The next year Oates joined Robinson's coaching staff and lobbied for Finley to make the club. Now Oates is in charge of the Orioles, and Devereaux is his only regular with speed.

Finley won't admit it publicly, but he would have loved playinfor Oates, who he knew was always in his corner, lauding his work habits and fierce determination. The fact is, each of the former Orioles misses Baltimore -- the fans, the atmosphere, the city.

The Astros' average home attendance is 12,797 (the Orioles' i29,600). They might as well be the visiting team when the Mets and Cubs come to town. "You're in your hometown in the ninth inning listening to chants of 'Let's Go Mets,' " Finley says.

He tells a visitor to say hello to Devo and Brady and Oates. Hjokes about the Astros getting sold and playing next year in Washington, D.C. He acts as if the trade is a mixed blessing -- which, alas, is more than the Orioles can say.

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