There was no imaginable reason the Orioles would want to keep Alan Mills for 1996, and every reason to believe they'd dump him. At least that's what Mills figured.
The pitcher had a terrible season and underwent shoulder surgery, and teams rarely invite back damaged goods. As the December deadline for teams to tender contracts approached, Mills assumed he wouldn't hear from the Orioles. "I thought there was no way I'd be back," he said.
But the third week of December, a fat envelope arrived in the mail -- a 1996 Orioles contract. "A complete surprise," said Mills, who will get a chance to re-establish himself in the Orioles' bullpen.
Manager Davey Johnson needs at least one right-hander from a group of three that includes Mills, Armando Benitez and Keith Shepherd to step up and absorb innings in middle relief. General manager Pat Gillick said: "We're optimistic he'll be ready to start the season."
Mills faces a few more medical hurdles before he'll be cleared to cut loose with his fastball, but his progress is apparent. Already, he is playing long toss, something he couldn't do last year because of arm problems.
"I don't want to get caught up in the excitement of trying to get back," he said. "There will be a lot of temptation to push it. You'll have your friends around you firing the ball, but I just want to take it one step at a time . . . and make sure I'm healthy.
"That's my main thing for this year -- make sure my arm is OK."
Mills, 29, isn't sure his arm was ever OK last year. "Last year was weird," he said. "I learned a lot about playing hurt. I figured if I could throw the ball, I could pitch. It was kind of like being %J between a rock and a hard place -- my velocity was all right, but I knew something was wrong with my arm."
Former Orioles manager Phil Regan had major plans for Mills, teaching him a sinker and using him in a setup role, along with Benitez.
Late in spring training, however, Mills' arm felt dead. He was throwing hard -- his fastball consistently registered in the low 90s -- but his fastball didn't have its usual explosiveness. Mills pitched in the first four games of the season and was shelled, allowing seven runs in two innings, and he just didn't get any better.
There was no time for rest, either. The Orioles' bullpen was thin to begin with, and when Regan lost faith in left-hander Brad Pennington and Benitez, the workload fell to Mills. He warmed up ZTC 35 times in a span of 15 games. Mills' teammates privately reported the pitcher was in severe pain (although Mills wouldn't comment then, and won't comment now).
In early June, the Orioles called up relievers Terry Clark and Mark Lee, and Mills got six days of rest. But when he came back, Mills says now, his arm still felt dead.
An enemy advance scout noted at the time that Mills' fastball had no movement whatsoever, and he had little control of his breaking pitches. "He's throwing a lot of fastballs with nothing on them," the scout said. "It's like setting the ball on a tee."
Mills was shelled for four runs in one-third of an inning in Cleveland on June 13, made two appearances in Detroit later that week and was banished to the minors. Mills made one start for Triple-A Rochester, but continued to feel bad.
"I told [the Orioles] then that this was something I needed to have looked at," he said.
James Andrews, the Alabama surgeon who repaired Jeffrey Hammonds' knee, examined Mills' shoulder and found two bone spurs. "Neither one of them was any bigger than the head of a pin," Mills said.
But they may have restricted the movement in his shoulder, affecting his pitching mechanics. "Without really thinking about it," Mills said, "I think I changed my arm slot [the position from which he delivers the ball] so I could throw more comfortably, and that may have flattened out my fastball."
Andrews shaved the spurs from Mills' shoulder in an operation Aug. 30, and repaired some minor fraying in his rotator cuff. Mills began his rehabilitation the next day, and started throwing by mid-December. There is no such thing as minor arm surgery for pitchers, but Mills' operation wasn't nearly as severe as, say, an elbow reconstruction. Pitchers regularly recover from the removal of bone spurs.
"I think if everything continues to go right," Mills said, "I think I'll be about a week behind [other pitchers] in spring training. . . . I just want to put last year behind me."
NOTES: The Orioles agreed to terms with catcher Greg Zaun and pitcher Oscar Munoz yesterday. . . . Gillick continues to try to work out a multi-year deal with left-hander Kent Mercker, whose arbitration hearing is scheduled for Monday. Mercker is asking for $3.19 million for 1996, and the Orioles are offering $2.6 million.