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DEVO'S FUTURE IS NOW O's star is ready to go back to bat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

St. Petersburg, Fla. -- Mike Devereaux is building his dream house. He spent the winter shuttling between Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., prodding workmen and putting the finishing touches on what is fast becoming a technological wonder. The only thing that hasn't arrived yet is the 21st century, but when it does, he'll be ready.

"I've already got the place wired for 3-D television," Devereaux says proudly.

That revelation prompts a vision of the past -- a sea of faces wearing those silly red and green 3-D glasses at the movie house -- and prompts a silly question. Will Devereaux have to hand out glasses when he invites his friends over to watch Super Bowl XXXVI?

"I don't know," Devereaux says, laughing, "but if so, they'd have to be Oakleys."

No joke. He could afford to hand out $150 sunglasses if he wanted to. He finally hit the big-time to stay this year when he signed a one-year, $3.025 million contract that placed him behind only Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis on the Orioles' salary list.

He can also afford a laugh, because he is having the last one. He struggled for three years to establish himself after the Orioles acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Mike Morgan, but now has stepped to the threshold of superstardom. And he is enjoying the trappings of his newfound success.

"It gives you the opportunity to do the things you wouldn't be able to do otherwise," Devereaux said, "like building a home -- a dream home. I've played nine years, and that's something that I've always wanted."

Why Tampa? Because of the warm weather and the tax advantages that come with living in Florida. You've got to think about those things when you make $3 million per year. Why 3-D TV? Because Devereaux has long been a techno-junkie and he finally can afford it.

"I've always loved high-tech," he said. "I love computers, spaceships, anything."

It is not unusual to arrive in the clubhouse and find him reading a dictionary-sized manual for some new personal computer. If you went to his new house, you'd find all of the latest sound-reproduction equipment. If you rode in his car -- and, oh, what a car his Mercedes-Benz is -- you'd find that you can take the future with you wherever you go.

"The tires on his car cost more than my whole car," manager Johnny Oates said. "We went to do the 'Larry King Show' the other day and he's following us, and I look back and he's on the phone. It was like the epitome of the modern ballplayer."

Devereaux is just that. He is well-chiseled, well-healed and well-rehearsed. He knows the right things to say and how to say them. He knows the right way to act to carry out his responsibilities as a role model. He knows how to play the game, both on and off the field.

But no one can begrudge him his fame or his fortune because he came by them the old-fashioned way. He fought his way up through the minor leagues to finally emerge the past two years as a star-quality center fielder.

Last year, he finally hit the statistical mother lode with a 107-RBI performance that made him a legitimate American League MVP candidate.

Ready for prime time

It wasn't as if he came out of nowhere, but he nearly doubled his previous career RBI best.

He hooked up with friend and teammate Brady Anderson to provide a tremendous combination of all-around offensive production and defensive theatrics. Oates rode them hard, but they carried the Orioles back into contention in the American League East.

The numbers are striking, but Oates doesn't buy into the "dramatic emergence" theory. He thinks that Devereaux might have stepped into the upper echelon of AL run producers the year before if he had gotten any help.

"Look at his extra-base hits in 1991 and '92," Oates said.

"He had almost the same number of extra-base hits each year. He only had five more home runs last year. The difference was a matter of opportunity.

"In '91, he was batting leadoff and our seventh, eighth and ninth hitters weren't doing much in front of him. Last year, he batted mostly second and our eighth, ninth and leadoff hitters were very productive."

Devereaux also took better advantage of his opportunities. He hit .520 with the bases loaded last year (13-for-25), driving in 38 runs in those situations. The 1992 season was a run-production bonanza, but he doesn't agree that his success was a matter of simple circumstance.

"I felt a lot more comfortable last year," he said. "I was a lot more confident. The previous year my performance was a lot more sporadic."

Out of the Blue

No one ever has questioned Devereaux's confidence, but there was a time when he had to worry that this day might never come. He was backed up on the runway in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers' outfield was crowded with veterans and the only way to the major leagues appeared to be through another organization.

He doesn't have to think twice to remember the date of his professional rebirth. It was March 11, 1989. The club was playing the Houston Astros in Kissimmee, Fla. Manager Tom Lasorda called him in after the game and gave him the news.

"I looked at it as a new beginning," Devereaux said. "It wasn't that I disliked the organization that I was in, but in L.A. there was just no chance of my playing unless somebody got hurt. I was definitely going back to Albuquerque."

It was a critical point in his career. If the Dodgers had not made the deal, that beautiful home in Florida might still be a dream.

"I wasn't getting any younger," he said. "I was 26 years old. It was time for me to be in the big leagues. It was a matter of seeing friends who had the same ability as me playing in the big leagues. I was ready."

The Orioles might have had reason to regret the trade that sent Morgan to the Dodgers. He pitched decently his first two years in Los Angeles before emerging as one of the most effective pitchers in the National League. He was 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA in 1991, then went to the Chicago Cubs as a free agent and turned in a 16-8, 2.55 performance last year.

But who could have foreseen that after he was 1-6 with a 5.43 ERA in his only season in Baltimore? The Orioles believed that Devereaux had a better chance to help them over the long term, and that judgment has turned out to be correct.

"We knew he had the potential to be an outstanding player," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said, "but I don't think anyone could foresee the type of year he put together. He has just continued to improve each year, and I look for him to improve again this year."

Instant expectations

The club isn't seriously counting on him to improve his RBI production, but Robinson expects him to hit for a higher average and Oates is hopeful that he'll be more of a threat on the bases.

Devereaux is realistic. He just wants to put together another solid year. The club originally projected him as a 20-home run, 80-RBI type who would play excellent defense, but he has to guard against the unrealistic expectations that are sure to follow his breakthrough season.

"The worst thing I could do is go out there and try to justify my contract," he said. "If I go out this year and have 80-90 RBI, I have to consider that a solid season."

Who could argue? Devereaux has averaged 65 RBI in his four full seasons with the Orioles. If he betters that average by 30 percent, it would be hard to consider 1993 a disappointing season. But teammate Cal Ripken can tell him that a big year has a tendency to turn success into a very relative thing.

Ripken had the season of his life in 1991 and was rewarded with the American League MVP award. He came back last year with a 14-homer, 72-RBI performance that would have been considered solid for anyone else at his position, but it looked very small in the shadow of the previous season.

"I think it would be realistic to say that anywhere from 80 to 100 RBI is a good year," Robinson said. "I don't think you would look at that and say he had a bad year, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had another year of close to 100 RBI."

Getting involved

Devereaux already is putting his stardom to work in the community. His efforts are not as well-publicized as those of Ripken and Glenn Davis, but he has taken his responsibilities as a role model very seriously, both in his home state of Wyoming and in the Baltimore/Washington area.

"It's tough for kids nowadays to make it through life," he said.

"We need to go out there and talk to kids, because you can actually save lives."

He has spent parts of the past two off-seasons in Wyoming and Colorado doing motivational lectures as part of his "Thumbs Up" program to encourage kids to stay in school.

In Maryland and Washington, he is in the process of putting together foundations to help support high school and Little League baseball programs.

Role modeling begins at home, Devereaux says, but he accepts the notion that athletes have a responsibility to help lead youngsters in the right direction.

"It's tougher and tougher for parents," he said. "There are a lot of single-parent homes and they have to work. It's not as easy to spend as much time with your kids as it used to be."

Those kids are the future, and Devereaux takes the future seriously.

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