ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On the matter of Brady Anderson, this is a one-question spring. Can he do it again? Can he approach the zenith that was his performance of a year ago?
Everyone is asking. Fans. Teammates. Even the manager.
"Can he do it again?" Johnny Oates asked the other day. "After four years that were at best mediocre, and then last year, it's certainly a legitimate question to ask."
And . . .
"I would say that he has the ability to do it and we need him to do it and . . ."
And . . .
"We shall see."
Brady certainly isn't the one to ask for an answer. It's not that he is offended by the question. It's just that he arm-wrestled this game long enough to understand there are no promises.
"I sure hope I can do it," he said. "How's that?"
The question arises, of course, because history is full of one-year wonders and Brady was a career .219 hitter before last year's 21-homer, 53-steal, .271-hitting dazzler. But each case is different, and in Brady's there are circumstances that indicate his 1993 is more likely to resemble his luminous 1992 than the dim years that preceded it.
See, what happened to Brady last year was not just a spin on the roulette wheel that baseball often resembles in its sheer randomness. There was a reason, at least in Brady's mind, why he finally met the expectations his talent had long foretold.
"I believe I got more out of my ability because I was finally able to do things on my own," he said. "I was basically left alone. No one tried to turn me into a certain kind of player that I wasn't. I was allowed to do things my way. I know I wouldn't be as successful with any kind of confinement."
The Orioles had long tried to turn Brady into a classic leadoff hitter along the lines of the Dodgers' Brett Butler. They told him to take more pitches, don't strike out so much, hit the ball on the ground to take advantage of your speed. They rolled their eyes when he hit the ball in the air, swung freely, took chances. They got mad when he hit homers. They wanted a gnat.
The problem was that Brady disagreed with the club's perception of him. He saw himself not as another Butler, but a player who defied labeling: More powerful and aggressive at the plate than the average leadoff hitter, yet just as fast and adept on the bases.
And he was not going to give in. "Understand, having dealt with Brady the last two or three years, I know he's a stubborn guy," Oates said. "In fact, he's on my all-time top-five stubborn list."
L Brady was becoming as frustrated as he was stubborn, though.
"I felt like I was always under a lot of scrutiny," he said. "They would watch me hit in the spring and say, 'Hmm, what can we do to make him better?' But the abilities that some people thought I had weren't the ones I did have."
It was a stare-off, and the club finally blinked last spring. Oates made Brady the everyday leadoff hitter toward the end of the exhibition season -- there were not many alternatives -- and set him free.
"We were in Fort Myers to play the Twins," Oates said, "and I went out to Brady in the outfield and told him he was going to be the everyday leadoff hitter no matter what happened, and he could play the game any way he wanted. I was almost sarcastic about it, you know, like, 'We've tried to work with you, Brady, and maybe we've overcoached you, so just do whatever you want.' His eyes opened real wide."
Less than four months later, he was an All-Star.
So, if there is one certainty in the Orioles' camp this spring, it is that no one will tell Brady what to do. He is free to hit line drives and select the pitches he wants. Which only thrills him.
"Doing things your own way is what makes a lot of guys tick," he said. "Cal does things his own way. Devo. Baines. Every player has his own way of doing things. You just don't get that kind of freedom when you're struggling like I was."
The issue, then, is whether freedom will translate into another big year. Brady obviously thinks so.
"You can go back to the second half of 1991 [in which he batted .272], and I've been consistent over a period spanning more than a thousand plate appearances," he said. "That should indicate something. And last year obviously gave me a lot more confidence. Knowing that you're a good player when you're going well, removing any doubts you had about yourself, that's key. That's huge."
Does that answer the question of whether he can do it again? No. But do you get the drift?