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Winter left Pennington cold


SARASOTA, Fla. -- What else could go wrong? The second half of the 1993 season turned against Brad Pennington with a fury. The top relief prospect in the Orioles organization was riddled with self-doubt and rattled by the realization that his biggest step forward had become a step back.

What else could go wrong? How about a winter trip to Puerto Rico and another crisis of confidence? Pennington was released abruptly by the Mayaguez club of the Puerto Rican Winter League after a handful of rocky relief appearances, leaving room to wonder if his professional career was beginning to unravel.

"It just seemed like everything I was doing went wrong," Pennington said. "Nothing felt right. I went in and told them, 'I gotta get out of here. I'm losing what's left of my confidence.' "

Mayaguez manager Rick Dempsey encouraged him to stay, but volatile owner Carlos Mendez was eager to save the $3,900 per month that Pennington earned as one of the highest-paid players on the team. It wasn't a big letdown for Pennington -- who wanted to go home anyway -- but it certainly didn't play well in Baltimore.

It looked like just another strike against a young pitcher who has confounded the Orioles organization with his off-and-on controland his sometimes volatile personality. But he says it was more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In his last 15 major-league appearances of 1993, he gave up 20 earned runs in 12 1/3 innings (14.59 ERA). He pitched well during an assignment in Rochester late in the season and showed improvement upon his return to the Orioles in late September, but that wasn't enough to get him fired up for winter ball.

"I hated the whole situation in Puerto Rico," Pennington said. "I really needed a break after what had happened in the second half of last year. I asked them to find something for me later in the off-season, but [the Orioles] wanted me to go down there at the start of the season. I just went there with the wrong attitude."

The whole Mayaguez club had something of an attitude problem. Several players either quit or were kicked off the team because of differences with Dempsey. The owner only added to the situation with his roster decisions.

Pennington says he got along well with Dempsey off the field, but he defended his disgruntled teammates -- such as Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who quit the team and was criticized by Dempsey in a recent USA Today article.

"Rick is an unbelievable person," Pennington said. "We did a lot of things together [off the field], but on the field, he would show you up and do all kinds of things that were ridiculous. I saw where he cut down Rodriguez. I'm telling you, that was not Rodriguez's fault. We had to drive ourselves to the [road] games andsometimes it was a couple of hours to the ballpark and there was a lot of traffic, but he would fine guys $50 for being a little late."

Dempsey could not be reached for comment.

Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin expressed regret the time that Pennington had been subjected to a situation that might further erode his confidence, but club officials do not seem particularly concerned about that now.

"It's not going to bother him," GM Roland Hemond said. "I don't think it had that much of an effect. In winter ball, you try to find your players a good place to go. A lot of times you have your own manager and pitching coach. But you can't always get it perfect. At least he got some work."

The events of the past eight months produced speculation that Pennington had fallen out of favor with the Orioles. His name surfaced in some trade talk. His immediate future appeared to be in Rochester. But Hemond says the club still holds him in high regard.

"He got a taste of it last year," Hemond said. "He had some success, then for a while he didn't get much work and he didn't progress, but he still is a young pitcher with a great arm."

In retrospect, Melvin thinks Pennington would have been better served going to the Arizona Fall League after the season, but he had too much major-league service time to play there. The zTC eligibility rules are based on service days instead of actual game experience, but that might change if the Orioles and several other clubs have their way.

"There's a lot of talk about looking at that again," Melvin said. "That [changing from service days to games played] is something we may want to look at. It was discussed during the minor-league meetings. That might have helped Brad."

Three months later, he is anything but a broken man. He arrived in spring training aware that his chances of spending the 1994 season in the major leagues had diminished with the acquisition of Lee Smith and Mark Eichhorn, but he appears to have rebounded from the disappointment of last season.

"I got spoiled in the minor leagues," Pennington said. "I threw every other day and when I came up last year I was throwing all the time. But when I had to sit for 10 days, I didn't know how to handle it. I think that could have been handled better, but it's something I have to learn."

He realizes that he may have to do some of that learning at the Triple-A level this year, but seems prepared to deal with whatever develops over the course of the next six weeks.

"That might happen, but not for that reason," Pennington said. "If I get sent down, it will be because Johnny's breaking camp with five or six in the bullpen and only one left-hander. I can see that happening. I don't look forward to that. If he breaks camp with 10 pitchers, the numbers are going to work against me."

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