DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Orioles third baseman Leo Gomez will not need a benefactor this year, particularly if he continues to swing the bat the way he has this spring. He will not need the team owner to order anyone to put him in the starting lineup. He'll already be there.
"It's different when you know you're going to play every day," said Gomez, who was 1-for-3 in yesterday's 6-3 exhibition loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and enters the final weekend of the abbreviated exhibition season with a .409 batting average. "It looks like it's my job right now. When you know you're going to get three or four at-bats a day, it's easy to relax and play."
It wasn't like that a year ago, of course. Gomez was coming back from wrist surgery and the Orioles considered him so suspect that the club spent $2 million on veteran Chris Sabo to take his place. Even when Sabo was forced out of the lineup by his chronic back injury, there was no guarantee that Gomez would be in the starting lineup. He knew that manager Johnny Oates and the old Orioles coaching staff had no confidence in him.
"Sure, especially when Sabo got hurt and they put Tim Hulett in front of me," Gomez said. "They lost confidence in me when I got hurt [in 1993]. I think they felt that I couldn't play in the big leagues anymore."
That's when owner Peter Angelos stepped in and ordered Oates to put Gomez in the lineup on a regular basis -- a meddlesome move that set Angelos up for tremendous criticism . . . and turned Gomez around. He batted .274 with 15 homers and 56 RBIs in 285 at-bats to force his way back into the team's long-range plans.
Angelos isn't about to apologize. He said that the coaching staff had given up on Gomez prematurely, and wondered if there was some other reason the once-promising third baseman had fallen out of favor. He saw Hulett at third and drew the same conclusion that Gomez did.
"That fortified my belief that there was some kind of personal animus directed against the player when he [Oates] played Hulett instead of Gomez," Angelos said yesterday. "I could be wrong, but that's what I thought at the time."
The rest of the baseball world may have thought that Angelos ran afoul of baseball convention by intervening on one player's behalf, but you won't hear anything but praise from Gomez, who said his career may have been saved by the guy he began referring affectionately to as "Uncle Angelos."
"Sure, I appreciated that," Gomez said. "When you have a $2 million guy like Sabo and you keep him on the bench to give me a chance, of course I appreciate him saying that I have good
numbers and deserve to play. When I heard that, it gave me my confidence back. It felt good."
It also sparked dissension in the clubhouse, where Sabo complained bitterly about his reduced playing time even as Gomez provided the Orioles' batting order with a much-needed boost.
"Leo is swinging the bat good and he's a good guy, but he's no Mike Schmidt," Sabo said at the time. "When I'm healthy, my numbers have been as good as anybody in the game. Since Mike Schmidt retired, I don't play second fiddle to anybody. I'm not the one who hit .190 last year."
Sabo's poorly timed outburst -- the Orioles were on a 5-2 run at the time -- only guaranteed that Gomez would remain in the lineup and that Sabo would not be there to compete with him this spring.
The Orioles never considered re-signing Sabo and they never made a major push to acquire a front-line third baseman. The only other possibility in camp is minor-league journeyman Jeff Manto, who is expected to provide backup at third base this year but won't play regularly unless Gomez gets hurt or goes into an extended run-production slump.
"We had some other candidates, but when I look at his record, I see a guy who can hit 15-20 home runs and can provide some power at the bottom of our lineup," said manager Phil Regan. "If you look at the makeup of our outfield, we have to get power from our infield. He can supply some of that."
Club officials always have had reservations about his limited range, but even that may be improving. Infield coach Chuck Cottier has been working with Gomez on his defensive stance, hoping to improve his quickness to each side. The same effort was made last spring without apparent success, but Gomez appears to be making progress this time.
"It looks like he's quickened his feet at third base," Regan said. "We're also going to position him a lot this year. He has a tendency to creep in at third. We want him to stay back. Other than that, I'm happy with him. I don't know where he was last year, but for me, he's our third baseman."
Gomez can thank Angelos for that. Sometimes, it's nice to have friends in high places.
"I really don't know why he did that, but I think it paid off," Gomez said. "Sometimes, you only get one chance. Sometimes you get two or three. When he stepped in, the door opened for me again and I am very happy about that. This year, I just appreciate what Peter did for me and the other players. We want to win everything for him."
Exhibition opponent: Chicago White Sox
Site: Sarasota, Fla.
Time: 1:05 p.m.
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina vs. White Sox's Jim Abbott