O's shouldn't be too quick to give up on Bonilla's bat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orioles manager Davey Johnson completed the mission impossible flawlessly, finding a way to motivate a player, Cal Ripken, who hasn't missed a game in 14 years. Johnson stirred Ripken from an early-season slump and established control over the team and didn't even have to make the move he was talking about: Ripken to third base.

But Johnson has another problem that is festering, trouble that eventually could drag down the Orioles -- Bobby Bonilla -- and the manager isn't handling this matter with nearly as much skill.

As all the world knows, Bonilla has disliked the idea of being the designated hitter since Johnson raised the possibility at the end of spring training. Nonetheless, Bonilla suffered along with the plan through the early weeks of the season, swinging the bat well but not showing much production for it. As Bonilla's average plummeted, his despair over being the DH increased, from at-bat to at-bat, to the point he began to swing at any pitch within a time zone of home plate.

Finally, after a loud and angry complaint from Bonilla, Johnson relented and told Bonilla he would be moved to the outfield, for good. But, immediately, Bonilla sprained his ankle, and after being sidelined for several days, Bonilla returned to the lineup, primarily as a designated hitter. On May 22, he publicly ripped Johnson, and fans at Camden Yards began booing Bobby Bo with gusto.

Now, two months into the season, Bonilla is hitting .237 with three homers, or two more than Gregg Zaun. Johnson says he's no longer committed to playing Bonilla in the outfield, and the Orioles have been calling all around baseball to find anyone interested in making a deal for the switch-hitter.

All very cavalier. Perhaps it's because Johnson and the front office were successful in their Ripken venture, or because the Orioles have been winning despite Bonilla's slump, but they are taking a big chance in assuming they can succeed without Bonilla.

Johnson and general manager Pat Gillick are justified in being at wit's end with Bonilla, who should've accepted the assignment as designated hitter and thrived and shouldn't have allowed the whole matter to affect him as it has. But the fact remains that the Orioles will need Bonilla's production at some point, and should do everything to make him happy -- even if Bonilla has violated their sense of how a player should conduct himself.

The Orioles have been carried through the first 50 games by extraordinary offensive performances. Roberto Alomar has never hit higher than .326, and he's batting nearly .400. Brady Anderson has never hit more than 21 homers in a season, and he has 20 already. B. J. Surhoff has 10 homers after never hitting more than 13.

It stands to reason the three will continue to produce, but it would be foolhardy to believe they'll produce at this rate the rest of the season.

The Orioles will need more consistent production from Rafael Palmeiro, whose offense has come in clusters, and Ripken, whose eight-RBI game last week masks his early-season hitting woes. There's no telling what they'll get from Chris Hoiles, an offensive enigma the past two years, or Jeffrey Hammonds, who seems to be having trouble adjusting to the grind of playing on a daily basis.

When Anderson, Alomar and Surhoff inevitably drift to a more normal offensive output, the Orioles will need another big bat, especially since it appears their bullpen will remain thin and David Wells and Scott Erickson are just as capable of getting bombed as they are of pitching shutouts. The Orioles will need Bonilla.

Bonilla obviously is capable of giving them what they will need. He batted .330 last year, driving in 99 runs in 141 games. After joining the Orioles last season, Bonilla batted .333 and his joyous manner of play added life to an otherwise stagnant team. He can be a positive force.

If you remove Bonilla from the Orioles' lineup, suddenly there is no depth, just a string of right-handed batters -- Ripken, Hoiles, Hammonds -- who have struggled much of the season. The top of the lineup will be heavy with left-handed hitters, the bottom heavy in right-handers.

It's Johnson's responsibility, as he has noted dozens of times, to make players feel comfortable enough to express their talent. That means playing Bonilla in the outfield. Every day.

If the Orioles could deal Bonilla and get back a comparable player who would provide some sort of impact, such as Chicago's exceptional outfielder Brian McRae, they should do it. But that kind of trade is almost impossible. The only reason another team would take on Bonilla and his $4.5 million salary is if he could augment what it already has; it would make little sense for a team to trade away a major contributor to get Bonilla.

The Orioles could deal Bonilla for prospects, but in doing so, they would be creating a hole in their lineup they are not equipped to fill.

They need Bonilla to hit, to return to playing the way he did last year. Johnson should just ignore his greater sensibilities, stick Bonilla in right field and leave him there.

Spit and shine

Radiation used to stem Brett Butler's cancer could damage his salivary glands, Butler said last week. He already is having problems swallowing. "They told me I could lose my saliva glands indefinitely," Butler said. "I could lose them for 18 months. I just don't know. I've never seen a ballplayer who can't spit."

Cincinnati manager Ray Knight told Lee Smith straight out that he won't be the Reds' closer, but Smith told Knight he welcomed the change, anyway.

Former Oriole Kevin Brown, always attuned to signs of good and bad luck and who may write horoscopes when he retires from baseball: "Anybody that has any four-leaf clovers or horseshoes or anything like that, send it in. I'll take it."

Cincinnati catcher Eddie Taubensee has thrown out only four of 44 runners attempting to steal against him, so the Reds have called in Johnny Bench to work with him.

Belle: no defense?

Cleveland slugger Albert Belle reportedly asked a fan for his 21st home run ball in Texas, and when the fan asked for something in return, Belle allegedly replied, "I ain't trading you [anything]."

That Belle would do something so stupid and ungracious is no longer surprising. What is shocking is that some Indians officials repeatedly look just as dumb when they attempt to defend Belle. Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said, "I understand the fan feels insulted. But this is getting blown out of proportion. To me, on a scale of 1 to 10, this is about a 5."

Why would Hargrove say this? It's somewhat understandable that the Indians avoid disciplining Belle, who is having an MVP season, but why do they even attempt to downplay his actions?

The Indians have a poor defense, anyway, but shortstop Omar Vizquel is playing with a bad shoulder that eventually could require surgery.

Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace and Houston second baseman Craig Biggio are friends, represented by the same agent. But Grace and other Cubs were livid last week when they thought Biggio allowed himself to be hit by pitches. "It's garbage," Grace said. "Even if he was still in the batter's box, it's garbage."

Oakland owners Ken Hofmann and Steve Schott appear to be at odds over whether to move the Athletics, who are drawing very poorly. After Hofmann publicly suggested that fans had better start showing up or run the risk of losing the Athletics to Sacramento, Calif., Schott hustled to do some damage control and say he has no interest in relocating the team to the state capital.

Molitor vs. Selig

Paul Molitor attempted to smooth over his relationship with Brewers owner Bud Selig when the Twins played in Milwaukee last week. Selig was so unhappy with Molitor's decision to sign with Minnesota and not Milwaukee during the off-season that Molitor's former number, 4, was given to a nonroster invitee in spring training. Molitor called Selig on Wednesday.

"I told him that I was a little uncomfortable with the way things were left," Molitor said. "I told him I hope our communication would get back to the way it was, and we'd be able to call each other and stay in touch."

Selig said, "We had a nice talk."

Gene Harris, who pitched oh-so-briefly for the Orioles last year, is trying to come back from reconstructive elbow surgery with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pitching for the New York Giants in 1904, Joe McGinnity won his 10th game on May 21. His is the only start better than that of Atlanta's John Smoltz, who won his 10th game May 24 and his 11th in his next start and is threatening to be the majors' first 30-game winner since 1968.

Gary Sheffield continues to make noises about leaving the Marlins, which is doing nothing to endear him to Florida executives, who are tired of hearing him complain about one thing or another.

New York showcase

Mets manager Dallas Green sneered at New York reporters who suggested that Carl Everett was being showcased for trade last week after he was inserted in place of Bernard Gilkey in a late scratch. "You don't showcase a .190 hitter," Green said. Nevertheless, the Mets are trying to deal Everett, who is out of options and cannot be sent to the minors without being passed through waivers.

It actually happened: The Twins claimed left-hander Scott Aldred off waivers from the Tigers.

Yankees manager Joe Torre said he thinks Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 homers is going down. "I think there's going to be four or five guys hitting 62 this year," Torre said. "Look at all the guys with 15 to 20 home runs, and we're not even into June yet. . . . Oh, yeah, I'm serious. I think there'll be more than one. This year. I really do. Why not? What's going to stop them?

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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