The word filtered through the clubhouse yesterday that catcher Chris Hoiles had been named American League Player of the Month for September, which might be the only good piece of news to come out of past month for the Orioles.
And when Hoiles was congratulated for the honor -- the first bestowed on an Orioles position player in two years -- he nodded, took a sip of his coffee and said simply, "Thanks."
For the normally laconic Hoiles, that was virtually a speech. It's not that Hoiles doesn't have anything to say; he just prefers to let his play do most of his talking.
This season, Hoiles' offense has spoken loudest, and, indeed, with two games to go, he has the chance to become the first American League catcher to hit .300 with 30 or more homers in a single season.
But Hoiles' play behind the plate is the latest talking point, and all the words have been good.
"We always knew he could hit," said manager Johnny Oates. "But his defense this year has been outstanding. He's blocking pitches really well. I don't know how many wild pitches he saved the other night. I'm very pleased with what he's done behind the plate."
Hoiles has seen the improvement, too.
"My biggest thing was that last year I had a bad throwing percentage in terms of getting guys trying to steal," said Hoiles. Elrod [Hendricks, bullpen coach] and I worked on that this spring and I wanted to bring that [percentage] up."
Hoiles threw out only 15.5 percent of attempted base stealers last year, the lowest mark in the American League. However, he has raised that mark to 34 percent this year, nailing 32 of 95 runners.
But Hoiles, who has five errors and two passed balls, has done more than just improve at catching runners trying to steal. He has become a more complete receiver, one who better understands his craft and the people he works with.
"I'm getting to know each pitcher and what he can do," said Hoiles. "Last year helped a lot. It's just another year's experience. Just knowing who you have helps you a lot."
Hoiles, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, spent most of his early minor-league career bounding among first base, designated hitter and catcher.
It was only after he was traded to the Orioles organization in August 1988 that he became a full-time catcher. And because he didn't have a wealth of catching experience, Hoiles could feel a little nervousness on the part of pitchers to completely rely on his pitch calls.
Hoiles certainly has been helped by the Orioles' three former big-league catchers -- Oates, Hendricks and bench coach Jerry Narron -- and he has tapped into all three of them for support.
But Oates is quick to shift the credit for Hoiles' improvement squarely on his 28-year-old catcher's shoulders.
"He's fundamentally sound, blocking the plate, calling the game and working with the pitchers. He's come a long way since October of '91," said Oates.
But one can't ignore Hoiles' contributions in the batter's box. He needs two homers to become the fifth American League catcher to hit 30 homers in a season.
After missing three weeks with a strained lower back muscle, it seemed improbable that Hoiles would have a shot to hit 30 homers, but his sterling September, with eight homers, 22 RBI and a .364 average -- has given him that chance.
Hoiles, who has already broken Gus Triandos' 35-year-old club mark for most RBI by a catcher with 79 and would tie his homer mark with his 30th, said he always figured that he could hit home runs.
But after last season, when he set an all-time mark -- driving in the fewest runs (40) while hitting 20 or more homers -- Hoiles pledged to beef up his RBI and defense.
"The batting average wasn't that important. I'd like to hit in the high .200s, but the biggest thing was the RBIs," said Hoiles. "That was a goal that I set in spring training and I'm glad I was able to accomplish that."