KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Left-hander Sid Fernandez struggled through the first inning of his 1995 exhibition debut yesterday. He walked people. He hit a guy. He threw a ball to the backstop. He looked awful.
And yet he has never looked better. Never felt better, either.
The dramatic change in his physical appearance -- he lost 37 pounds during the 7 1/2 -month players strike -- far overshadowed the sloppy first inning. He bounced back and so did the Orioles, who would come from behind with three runs in the ninth inning to score a 7-6 victory over the Houston Astros at Osceola County Stadium.
"There were times last year when I was just warming up and I was sweating and breathing hard," said Fernandez. "There were times when I was nervous because I didn't think I would be able to finish an inning."
He can feel the difference and he can hear it, too. Despite the shaky start, he heard things from the crowd that he had never heard before in his 11-year big-league career. Nice things. Encouraging things.
"That's the first time I had fans telling me, 'You look good,' instead of, 'You fat pig, have another slice of pizza,' " he said. "You name it, I've heard it."
People can be cruel, but Fernandez could not blame anyone else for his weight problem, and he cannot yet say that it is a thing of the past. He has come into camp lighter before and then ballooned back up during the course of the season. This year may be no different, but, at 32, he is older and seems a little wiser now.
Maybe he realizes that there may not be that many seasons left. Maybe the lengthy work stoppage made him appreciate the game a little more. Maybe he can see what everyone else can see -- that a strong, healthy Sid Fernandez could make all the difference in a tough American League East race.
Or maybe he doesn't want them to be right, all those people who have chastised him over the years for letting success go to his waist. Maybe he wants to find out just how good he might be if he ever spent an entire season both healthy and in shape.
"I'm not saying that because I lost the weight I'm going to throw the ball 100 miles an hour," Fernandez said, "but I'm going to be able to stay in there longer. This is going to prolong my stuff."
That's all the Orioles can ask. Fernandez was one of the most effective pitchers in the National League, when he was healthy. He signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Orioles, but shoulder and rib-cage problems restricted his availability and contributed to a career-worst 5.15 ERA.
"It seemed like I would pitch well for three or four innings and then I'd peter out," said Fernandez, who has long been reluctant to blame his weight for his troubles on the mound and in the training room. "I don't think that's going to happen this time."
He had gotten away with it for so many years. He wasn't exactly skinny when he turned in sub-3.00 ERAs in four of the previous five seasons, so why change anything in Baltimore?
There were always whispers. The word around the National League was that Fernandez was eating his way out of the game. He had a series of injuries that prevented him from pitching full time -- some of them unrelated to his weight -- but he also had chronic knee soreness, which was not a coincidence.
He knows that now. The sore knees finally persuaded him to change his lifestyle.
"I was out on the golf course and my knee started to swell up," Fernandez said. "That's when I said to myself, 'This is ridiculous. You can't even play golf.' That's what made my mind up to do this. I wanted to get as light as I can, take as much pressure off my knees as possible and pitch as well as I'm capable."
No one knows if it will make him a better pitcher, but there is little doubt it will make him a healthier one. His first appearance wasn't pretty, but no one expects much the first time out. He gave up two runs in the first inning on two hits, two walks, a hit batsman and a wild pitch, then settled down to pitch a scoreless second.
"I thought he threw pretty well," said manager Phil Regan. "His control wasn't where he wanted it to be, but that's natural the first time out. He adjusted. We only expected 40 pitches and he threw 32 in the first inning, so he had to pitch well to finish the second."
He won't get much time to work into midseason form, but the Orioles' outlook for 1995 improved right along with his physical appearance. Fernandez was considered a major question mark after last year's 6-6 performance, but he'll be a major asset if he turns out to be the solid third or fourth starter the club was looking for when it signed him before the 1994 season.
Exhibition opponent: Philadelphia Phillies
Site: Clearwater, Fla.
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
L Starters: Orioles' Ben McDonald vs. Phillies' Curt Schilling