ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Orioles manager Johnny Oate cannot complain about the progress of spring training. He has seven defensive positions set and a surplus of candidates for the few jobs that remain in competition.
But tough choices lie ahead, and one of the toughest involves the two players who have been competing for the backup role behind starting catcher Chris Hoiles. Jeff Tackett and Mark Parent both deserve to stay in the major leagues -- of that there is no dispute in the Orioles' front office -- but it appears that only one will be in Baltimore on Opening Day.
Who will it be? Your guess is as good as Oates'. He said earlier this week that it was an absolute dead heat, and the statistics bear him out. Parent entered the weekend batting .286. Tackett was only a two-hit game behind at .250. Both have played well behind the plate. Both have shown that they can throw out base runners. Both have shown that they belong.
"I haven't had any real feel," Parent said. "I've gotten some playing time. I've been hitting the ball hard, though I don't really have that much to show for it. I feel good catching. I feel like I'm ready to play a season, but the decision is up to Johnny."
The decision is difficult for a number of reasons. Oates, a journeyman catcher in his 10-year, major-league career, can sympathize with the plight of both players. Tackett, 27, spent all or part of eight seasons in the minor leagues before catching on for all of 1992. Parent, 31, came back from a severe knee injury to play every day for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings last year.
"I can't identify with them because I wasn't as good as either one," Oates said. "Sure, I sympathize with them. I think both are capable of catching in the big leagues. On our club, they can't be No. 1, but either one is capable of being the backup."
Parent says he feels his time has come, but he doesn't have any idea if it will come with the Orioles. He knows that Tackett is the incumbent reserve, even though he did come up to play in a few games with the Orioles last year.
"I'm 31, so Rochester would be a no-win situation for me," he said. "I hope that if I'm not here, they'll find someplace for me to play. There are a lot of teams out there looking for catchers."
That may be true, but there are a lot of teams that would love to have the catching depth that the Orioles would have if they could find a way to keep both Parent and Tackett in reserve. Oates seems unlikely to keep three catchers at the major-league level, so for the club to keep both, one would have to play for the Red Wings.
Tackett did not expect to get comfortable this spring. He has been scrapping for playing time since he signed with the Orioles as a second-round draft pick in 1984, but he also is trying not to become overly concerned about his future.
"Nothing has ever come easy to me," he said. "I've had to work for everything. I'm just so used to that. Every year, I've had to battle for a job."
The situation last year was even more complicated. Parent was in camp, but Tackett also was in competition with long-time Oriole Rick Dempsey. He was going up against a local legend and another hungry catcher, but he won out.
Oates had no reason to regret the decision. Tackett was in the right place at the right time when Hoiles broke his wrist in June and played regularly for much of the summer. He did a solid job, but his numbers were not enough to make him a lock to retain the job this spring.
"I think this is a lot like last year," Tackett said.
"I've been doing everything that they wanted me to do. I've hit the ball, bunted the ball, blocked the plate, thrown runners out. I love it. I'm having fun. I don't put any extra pressure on myself."
Parent can't help but feel pressure.
He has been playing pro baseball since 1979. He came up with the San Diego Padres and spent parts of five seasons with them. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1990 for third-base prospect Scott Coolbaugh (who is in the Orioles organization now), but tore knee ligaments in that club's first intrasquad game.
The Orioles brought him into camp last year, but he was the odd-man out when the club went north. Tackett won the backup job. Dempsey was kept as an "instructor." Parent went to Rochester and turned in a strong performance, with 17 home runs and 69 RBI in 101 games.
He had hoped to be picked up by another team during the off-season, but the uncertainty of the glutted free-agent market convinced him to re-sign with the Orioles. Now, he has to hope the club keeps him at the major-league level or gives him the freedom to catch on with another club.
"I'm not really concerned," Parent said. "I know that even if Johnny decides that I'm not good enough for this team, there are some teams that I can help. I think he would do the right thing and find a spot for me."
Club officials are noncommittal, but it appears they will give Parent the opportunity to seek major-league employment elsewhere if Tackett gets the backup role. It seems unlikely, however, that they will give Parent his release unless he has a major-league job lined up.
Whatever the scenario, it should be played out in the next week. Oates has not been able to separate them for three weeks, so he figures that the decision will not be made until the final day of spring training.
It is a friendly rivalry, at least. Perhaps each understands the other better than anyone else.
"When Tack is playing, I'm right there rooting for him," Parent said. "I'm also rooting for Chris. That's just the way I've always done it."