SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles' latest spring training experiment began quietly yesterday. Left-hander Fernando Valenzuela donned his familiar No. 34 and threw for 10 minutes off a practice mound.
So far, so good.
His arrival at Twin Lakes Park began an audition that figures to attract considerable attention during the next few weeks, but Valenzuela handled it in his typical, low-key manner. He tried hard to fade into the woodwork, though his presence provided the only real excitement on an otherwise uneventful day of workouts.
"It was nice," Valenzuela said. "I know a few players from before. The thing about this team is that they are very together. That's the main thing. I think it's going to take a little while for me to feel part of the team, but it's nice to be on this team . . . on a competitive team."
The day began with a meeting with manager Johnny Oates, who was with the Los Angeles Dodgers the year that Valenzuela, then 19, first arrived in camp. They did not really get acquainted then, but they apparently will have plenty of time to get to know each other now. Oates will be monitoring Valenzuela very closely to determine whether he is the pitcher to fill the final spot in the Orioles' five-man starting rotation.
If that might be reason for Valenzuela to try too hard to impress the Orioles coaching staff, he apparently has learned from a bad experience. He tried to pitch competitively too soon after he signed with the California Angels in 1991 and pitched himself right back out of major-league baseball. This time, he is planning to take it a little easier.
He will throw on the side again tomorrow before trying to throw batting practice Friday. It is conceivable that he could be ready to work in an exhibition game sometime next week, but no one is putting a timetable on his return.
"This morning, when I came in here, he [Oates] said it all depends on how I feel," Valenzuela said. "He said to tell him when I'm ready. He wants me to get comfortable with the team first, not to do too much too soon. That's what I'm looking for, trying to do a little bit more each day."
His first workout was supervised by pitching coach Dick Bosman, who also stressed the importance of a slow and easy approach to the first few days of workouts. Valenzuela pitched 262 innings in Mexican summer and winter leagues during the past 11 months, but he had not pitched since the Caribbean Series three weeks ago.
"It's not a hurry, hurry thing," Bosman said. "He hasn't done a whole lot for a couple of weeks, so you have to give him a chance to get his legs under him."
Oates didn't even come over to the practice mounds to watch Valenzuela make his first pitches as an Oriole, but that was not for lack of interest. He intentionally maintained his distance to keep Valenzuela from feeling pressure to perform.
"I'm not going to make any decisions on one day," Oates said. "I'm going to let him go a couple of days, so I don't have any preconceived notions. If I was in his situation, I wouldn't want anyone watching me on the first day."
Valenzuela seemed to be having a good time, nonetheless. It has been nearly two years since he was part of a major-league team, but he seemed very much at home in the clubhouse. There were enough players around from his past to make him feel comfortable.
Right-hander Rick Sutcliffe and coach Davey Lopes were Dodgers teammates during his breakthrough season in 1981. Mike Devereaux and Jim Poole also were with the Dodgers during his tenure. And Valenzuela enjoyed getting reacquainted with first baseman Glenn Davis and pitcher Jamie Moyer, who competed against him in the National League.
There also were a few reporters around to make it feel like old times, so Valenzuela met the press for the second time since arriving in Sarasota late Sunday. Again, he was pressed on his age, which had been a matter of skepticism when he broke into the major leagues in 1980.
He was questioned then because he looked older than his 19 years, but the Dodgers produced a birth certificate at the time to quiet the speculation. Valenzuela accepted the questioning good naturedly Sunday night, but he was a little more adamant yesterday.
"I'm 32," he said. "I don't think I have to prove it to anybody. All that matters is how I throw."
This may be his last chance, but he is happy to have it. He didn't draw any interest from major-league clubs a year ago, so he didn't know what to expect this spring.
"I thought probably if I didn't get a chance to be in camp, I would go back to Mexico and play one more year of summer and winter league," he said. "Then I would go home and be with my family."
It has been 12 years since he burst upon the baseball world with eight straight victories to open the 1981 season. He was Rookie of the Year and won the Cy Young Award that season. He won 21 games in 1986. He pitched a no-hitter in 1989. All of which leaves room to wonder just how Fernando Valenzuela feels about being a long-shot pitcher trying to catch on with a new club.
"I feel great," he said. "It's just nice to be back in a big-league camp. It feels good to be a rookie again."