Last up for Bufords With brothers in law, medicine, final Oriole son is set on majors


FREDERICK -- In the Buford family, son Damon is on the spot these days. As the youngest of three boys, he represents the last chance for a son of Don Buford to reach the major leagues.

Damon, the Frederick Keys' centerfielder, smiles when that subject arises, fully aware that although his brothers gave up the game, they are hardly failures. Don Jr., 25, is in his fourth year at UCLA's medical school and Daryl, 23, has a year to go at Southern Cal's law school.

Still, Damon, at 21, is motivated by his brothers' modest baseball success to do better, to truly succeed. In his first full professional season, Damon has five home runs, 40 RBIs and a .251 average, and is No. 2 in the Single A Carolina League in stolen bases with 31.

"I'm my father's last chance," Damon said. "I wouldn't be playing now if I didn't think I had a chance to make the big leagues."

Don Sr. played in the big leagues for 10 years, spending 1968 through 1972 with the Orioles and appearing in three World Series. An outfielder, Buford batted .264 for his career and stole 200 bases, with a high of 51 with the White Sox in 1966.

Today Buford is an instructor in the Orioles' farm system with the unwieldy title of Director of Field Operations/Instruction. Ask him if Damon is the best of the three Bufords and he chuckles.

"Yes," he said. "Actually, the best of the four -- including myself."

Daryl chose not to pursue baseball beyond the high school level. Don Jr. played in the Orioles' farm system before abandoning the game after last season to return to medical school.

Don Jr. had his father's speed, one year stealing 77 bases. But last year, in 50 games with Double A Hagerstown, he wound up on the bench with a .196 average.

"We discussed it," Don Sr. said. "We concluded that if he wasn't happy because he wasn't getting hits and wasn't playing much, it would be best to go back to med school. He wants to go into sports medicine.

"If it hadn't been for that, I would have recommended he stick around and see what happened. He had only played three years."

Damon was drafted on the 10th round of the June 1990 draft after a college career at Southern Cal. There is no fear in the mind of anyone in the Buford family that Damon will be lost to law or medicine.

"He wants to be a major-league baseball player," Don Sr. said.

Damon has some of the tools, including speed. As a righthanded hitter, he has been timed running to first base in 3.9 seconds. Anything under four seconds is admirable.

If the Orioles decide during the offseason to continue the experiment to convert Buford into a switch-hitter, his time to first will be even better when he bats lefthanded.

"You can see the potential," said Frederick general manager Keith Lupton. "He could be a future leadoff hitter like his daddy. We have a lot of guys on this club who won't get better. Damon will."

Damon is under the guidance of Frederick manager and former major leaguer Wally Moon, Keys batting coach Joel Youngblood and, of course, his father. He got off to a good start, fell into a wretched slump when his average dropped to .230 and is now recovering.

"Until I came here, I only listened to my father," Damon said. "Now I listen to him, Wally and Joel. I take some of the philosophies of each and put them together."

Making it clear who's in charge of handling Buford at the moment, Moon said, "Don clears it with me before he works with Damon. I give him a yes or no. It can be a difficult read. If a guy is performing well, you usually leave him alone. It depends in part on the mood of the kid and how he's performing, whether he needs extra batting practice or instruction. Don has a huge job in this organization, working with 145 youngsters. He can't just dote on his son."

Buford's main asset is his speed and, as Moon puts it, "his flair and desire for stealing." Moon says Buford has the same acceleration as Lou Brock, the major leagues' all-time stolen base leader until Rickey Henderson broke his record.

In Moon's estimation, Buford needs work on his batting swing and his throwing arm.

"He has to get that swing under control, more compact and shorter," Moon said. "He has a collegiate uppercut. That works against mediocre pitching and in college where they use aluminum bats, but not against everyday good pitching like he faces here.

"He has a modicum of power, enough to deceive himself. If he tries to hit home runs, he'll be back to that looping swing and his average will suffer. He's got to be satisfied with getting on base rather than slugging."

When he was growing up and in his college days, Buford was an infielder. Now he is required to make long, hard throws from centerfield.

"Damon has to strengthen his arm," Moon said. "Most of his early play was at second base, which didn't require him to increase his arm strength. As an outfielder here, he has shown some improvement."

In the first inning of a Keys game this week, Buford walked and stole second with a headfirst slide. When the next batter hit a blooper that dropped in front of the leftfielder, Buford raced around to score.

In those few moments, Damon Buford showed what he can do for a team with his blazing speed.

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