Bark bides his time with Braves Atlanta's deep staff slows almost-Oriole


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Brian Bark is the not-so-big one who got away from the Orioles.

He's listed in the Atlanta Braves media guide as 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds. Some have said those figures are generous, but Bark insists he's been shortchanged.

"The weight is wrong," he said, displaying a compact but muscular frame. "I weigh 175 pounds -- all muscle. I was 160 when I played in college."

Indeed, Bark would have to have had a high percentage of muscle on his frame to attract attention. A body of his size is not often seen in the major leagues.

He went to high school and lives in Randallstown. Bark had a remarkable career at North Carolina State. He either played center field or pitched in 240 straight games during his four years with the Wolfpack. He was an All-American as a freshman and an All-Atlantic Coast Conference choice four straight years as an outfielder. In his senior year, he was named to the all-conference team as a pitcher and outfielder.

His story might be an unlikely one, but it is not unexpected to Bark. "My entire life, I always thought of myself as a major-league player," he said.

"That's the way my father raised me," said Bark. "And he was the best teacher I ever had. I feel this is where I should be."

Bark is almost a copy of his father, Jerry, who played at City College, the University of Maryland and briefly in the farm system of the New York Mets during the 1960s. Next week, he'll visit Florida to watch his son's pursuit of a lifelong dream for both of them.

Bark is realistic enough to know that the earliest he can hope to make the major leagues is September, when the rosters are expanded. He's a starting pitcher on a team with the strongest, and youngest, rotation in baseball.

That doesn't deter Bark. "There are 27 other teams out there," he said.

Oddly enough, the Orioles, who are auditioning for a fifth starter, drafted Bark a year before the Braves did. It was in 1989, after his junior year, when his hometown team made him a late selection.

"It was the 20th-something round," recalled Bark, who was told ++ he'd get a look as both an outfielder and a pitcher. But the Orioles never really made a serious offer.

"I was ready to sign, and I had a [bonus] figure in mind," said Bark. "But they didn't come close to it. I was kind of disappointed because I grew up following the Orioles.

"However, I had an opportunity to finish my career at a good school, which was important to me. I knew I'd get another chance."

A year later, the Braves took Bark on the 11th round and he was among those invited to Atlanta to work out for Bobby Cox, then the manager and general manager. From the outset, his role was never in doubt.

"I still consider myself a player," said Bark, "but I had a terrific scout [Ray Clarke], and he had a definite plan for me."

That plan did not include playing the outfield. Bark was 2-2 with a 2.66 ERA with Single-A Pulaski. A year later he was 4-3 with a .251 ERA at Single-A Durham and 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA at Double-A Greenville.

When he started out 5-0 (1.15 ERA) at Greenville last year, Bark was promoted to Triple-A Richmond. "I had a 1.80 ERA the first month I was there," said Bark, "but I had to take a back seat when the Braves sent Mark Wohlers down to get ready for the playoffs."

Bark's overall numbers at Richmond weren't impressive (1-2, 6.00), but he struck out 50 in 42 innings. It was enough to convince the Braves that he's ready for the last step before the big leagues.

"He's going to pitch in the big leagues," said Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, who played with and against Jerry Bark when the two were playing sandlot ball in Baltimore. "But right now there isn't any room on this staff."

Bark is neither intimidated nor discouraged by his status with the Braves. "Absolutely not," he said when asked if he felt he could get lost in the shuffle of pitching talent. "I couldn't pick a better organization to be with."

That despite the fact Bark would have liked to sign with his hometown team, the Orioles. "It just didn't work out," he said.

"It came down to me having to make a decision -- and knowing that I would get another opportunity a year later down the road," said Bark.

He wouldn't say how far apart he and the Orioles were back in 1989. "It wasn't a tough decision," said Bark, "but I'm not going to say anything to make them mad at me, because you never know what could happen."

Doug Melvin, the club's personnel director, said the Orioles never felt they had much of a chance to sign Bark. "I know [scout] Jim Gilbert was high on him," said Melvin, "and we were going to look at him as both an outfielder and pitcher. But we felt he would be a tough sign. That's the reason he wasn't drafted earlier."

Bark, 24, made his exhibition debut for the Braves two days ago, pitching two scoreless innings against the Mets. But he has no illusions about his status.

"I know I'll be going to Richmond to be a starter," he said. "I've got to prepare myself to pitch in the big leagues."

A lot of people never thought he'd make it this far. But Bark never doubted that he'd get the opportunity -- and succeed.

The not-so-big one who got away from the Orioles is knocking on the big-league door.

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