MINNEAPOLIS -- Damon Buford thought it was a joke at first. His Rochester Red Wings teammates were quick to jump on the news that big-league center fielder Mike Devereaux was going on the disabled list, but the Orioles' Triple-A replacement wanted TC to wait for the official word.
"I guess it's kind of a Triple-A joke when someone gets hurt," Buford said. "When they heard it, everybody was saying, 'Buf, you're going up.' Then the fantasy turned into reality."
It had been a lifelong dream to follow his father to the major leagues, even though former Orioles outfielder (and now Bowie Baysox manager) Don Buford concluded his playing career long before his son had a grasp of what was going on.
"This is just what I've always wanted to do," Damon Buford said, "all the way back to when I was playing whiffle ball in the back yard.
"I was kind of young when my dad played. You look at Ken Griffey playing with his dad. That's a little different thing. I was only 2 years old when he played, so I wasn't even watching the games or anything. Still, it's awesome to be out there."
He joined the major-league club Monday night in Minneapolis and reported to the Metrodome early in the afternoon to take extra batting practice. Last night, he made his first major-league start in center field in the opener of a two-game series against the Minnesota Twins.
That's where the dream abruptly ended. He misjudged a fly ball by Kirby Puckett in the third innning that resulted in a triple. Puckett scored on Dave Winfield's grounder. Batting ninth, Buford went 0-for-3, including a walk and a strikeout.
Manager Johnny Oates remains noncommittal on just how much he'll use Buford. He did not hesitate to throw him right into the action. He has done that with newcomers in the past to get them past their first-game anxiety, but it is not out of the question that Buford could play regularly until Devereaux heals.
"We'll just see how it goes," Oates said before the game. "We'll try to give him an opportunity to play."
If the arrival of one of the club's top young prospects should have been a source of anticipation, that was tempered by the loss of the club's top run producer of 1992. Devereaux, who will miss at least five to six weeks, drove in 107 runs last year and combined with Brady Anderson for a one-two offensive punch that kept the team in contention throughout the season.
Buford, 22, cannot be expected to replace Devereaux's statistics, even if he left Rochester with a .313 average and a 19-game hitting streak. The club can only hope he'll play solid defense and contribute enough offensively to justify a place at the far end of the batting order.
The Orioles knew they might need to dip into their minor leagues this year, but they could not have expected to make the number of moves that have been necessary during the season's first month.
"It seems like we're getting younger every day," Oates said. "We've brought up Damon. We brought up [Brad] Pennington recently, and [Sherman] Obando and [Jack] Voigt. But that was one of the things we were excited about this spring -- the young players. We've got Chito Martinez on the DL. We've got Devo on the DL. [Luis] Mercedes is in San Francisco. We're finding out that it's a good thing to have all these young outfielders."
Oates tried to look on the positive side, but it wasn't easy. The Orioles were just breaking out of an early-season scoring slump that had left the club in last place for much of the season. Devereaux had bounced back from a slow start to hit in five straight games before he suffered a partially separated sternoclavicular joint diving for a ball in Sunday's game against the Royals.
"I know it's a cliche, but it's part of the game," Oates said. "The Dodgers have lost Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry. The Brewers have lost Robin Yount. Maybe this will be a blessing in disguise. Maybe Damon will come in here and play like a house of fire. Then again, I just don't see how losing Devo could be a blessing. Well, maybe for the future."