Hoiles unmasks talent in hurry First-year regular stars at and behind the plate


ARLINGTON, Texas -- As long as Cal Ripken is his teammate, there's no chance that anybody will refer to Chris Hoiles as the "iron man."

But the workhorse catcher, who has teamed with outfielder Brady Anderson to lead the Orioles offensively for the first five weeks of the season, is displaying a lot of durability at baseball's most demanding position.

Going into tonight's game here against the Texas Rangers, Hoiles has started 28 and appeared in 29 of 31 games. At that pace, he would start 146 games and appear in 152 -- but manager Johnny Oates said he won't let that happen.

"So far, we've picked our spots with him, and as the season goes on he'll get at least one day off every week," Oates said. "The only reason he played Sunday is because we have two off days this week [yesterday and Thursday]."

One of the questions facing Oates in spring training was whether Hoiles, in only his second full season with the Orioles, could handle catching 120-130 games a year.

"It's something he hasn't done before," said Oates, "and we have to find out how he'll hold up."

Oates can only hope Hoiles comes close to holding up as well as he has so far.

"You feel it a little bit at the end of a day game following a night game," said Hoiles, 27, whose .344 average is fifth in the American League. "Other than that, I've felt fine.

"I think the reason I've never caught 120 games before is because I've never had the opportunity. I don't anticipate any problem."

Oates said Hoiles' production makes it difficult to ignore the temptation to keep him in the lineup as much as possible.

"There's no doubt about it," said Oates, "but over the long haul we'll have to find spots to rest him. I remember [as a coach for the Chicago Cubs] Jody Davis always wanted to catch 160 games -- because he had bonus clauses in his contract.

"I tried to tell him he would make more money [in the long run] by catching 130 games than 160. By the end of the year, he'd be dragging himself out there."

Hoiles, who leads the Orioles with seven home runs and is second to Anderson with 18 RBI, has attracted more than a little attention with his blistering start. His .637 slugging and .455 on-base percentages both rank second in the AL.

And while this type performance may be new for most observers, Hoiles has experienced the feeling before -- but at a different level.

"Right now, I feel like I'm swinging the bat the way I was in 1990," said Hoiles. That year he hit 18 home runs and batted .348 in only 74 games (247 at-bats) for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. Those numbers, initially, only led to confusion within the organization.

That was the year after the Orioles' near-miracle "Why Not?" season, and Mickey Tettleton and Bob Melvin were both still on the scene. Hoiles bounced back and forth between Baltimore and Rochester, but played sparingly at the big-league level.

Although his performance didn't get him immediate playing time with the Orioles, Hoiles ultimately influenced two trades. Rather than give Tettleton $6 million for three years or face him in arbitration, the Orioles dealt him to the Detroit Tigers.

Then, last winter, to remove the final obstacle to the development of Hoiles, the Orioles traded Melvin to the Kansas City Royals for Storm Davis. The move was considered something of a gamble, but the only way to guarantee that Hoiles would play every day.

Hoiles has done his part to make both decisions look good -- and he quickly has earned the respect of the pitching staff. Veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe has gone on record as saying he thinks Hoiles is the best all-around catcher in the league.

"That feels a little weird to have somebody who's been around and seen as much as he has to say something like that," said Hoiles. "It's quite a compliment."

Not one that Sutcliffe intended to be taken lightly.

"Pitchers look at catching as a defensive position," said Sutcliffe. "It always has been.

"[There are] two things about Chris that have really impressed me. One is his ability to block the ball -- he's outstanding at that. The other is his desire, and ability, to learn each and every pitcher on the staff.

"I know he went out of his way to learn everything about me that he could during spring training -- and that really helped me.

"Something else, which can be difficult for young catchers, he doesn't take his at-bats behind the plate with him. If he goes 0-for-4 -- which obviously hasn't happened very often -- he stays focused back there.

"I give him a lot of the credit for the job the pitching staff has done so far. He's done an excellent job."

And even though he's more attuned to the defensive scheme of things, Sutcliffe is not unaware of Hoiles' ability with the bat.

"He hits them in big people territory," said Sutcliffe, referring to a few tape-measure blasts by Hoiles.

A baseball season is more of a marathon than a sprint, so Hoiles still has a long trip before he gains acceptance. But if the route is anywhere near as smooth as it has been en route to the one-fifth pole, then Hoiles and the Orioles can expect to have a lot of fun.

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