FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When catchers start throwing drills in spring training, veterans always go first, a tradition based more on pride than protocol. No major-league catcher wants to ** follow an 18-year-old firing missiles to second base. Nobody wants to look bad by comparison.
Chris Hoiles, the Orioles' starting catcher, threw first the other day, but it probably wouldn't have bothered him to throw last, either. It's no secret, Hoiles acknowledges, that his arm will never draw comparison with the semi-miracle hanging off the right side of Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
Hoiles is more concerned about being the best he can be, and now, his right arm, the subject of much discussion the past two years, feels pretty good.
"My arm feels fine," he said. "You can highlight that in your article."
The difference in his throwing is marked. There were moments last year when Hoiles' throws seemed to float to second base, as if he had hit the ball with a badminton racket instead of firing it. One-hundred twenty-four runners attempted to steal against Hoiles last year, and 96 were successful, a poor ratio for a catcher.
But, as he threw last week, Hoiles' motion seemed much more relaxed, and though he wasn't whipping rockets to second, he had more velocity and his throws were always on target.
Orioles coaches Andy Etchebarren and John Stearns, both former catchers, agreed on the improvement.
"He'll be better," Etchebarren said. "The strength of his arm looks better to me, his footwork is good, and you can really see it in the 6-12 movement of the ball."
The 6-12 movement? "You know, when the ball is rotating 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock," Etchebarren said. "That shows he's getting rid of the ball in good shape, that his mechanics are good. The ball's not tumbling in all different directions."
Stearns said, "He's got a little more zip on the ball, you can see that."
The funny thing is that Hoiles says his arm feels no different from the way it did last year.
Hoiles hurt his shoulder in spring training 1995, a time when the sudden end to labor strife forced players to prepare quickly for the season. Maybe too quickly for Hoiles, who required treatment on his shoulder during most of that year.
Hoiles rehabilitated the joint in the off-season, and when he arrived last spring, his arm felt fine. New manager Davey Johnson, however, wasn't going to take any chances, and he reduced Hoiles' workload, pulling him out of bullpen workouts with pitchers, as well as other drills.
Hoiles went along. However, when he did finally get around to testing his arm, he looked awful. Reporters, curious about Hoiles' condition, pressed general manager Pat Gillick for reasons, and Gillick stunned them by saying that Hoiles had an arthritic condition in his shoulder.
Hoiles was stunned, too. The arthritis is actually in a part of the shoulder that has little to do with throwing, and his shoulder felt fine.
But nobody seemed to believe him. Hoiles gradually lost confidence in his ability to throw.
"The most discouraging part of it was that everybody was saying it was hurt, and it wasn't," Hoiles said.
"To me, you practice throwing like you do anything else. It's like hitting off a tee -- that's what you do to get ready. You can go into a hitting slump, and you can go into a throwing slump.
"Last year, my arm wasn't a problem. It was just me. It was a lack of confidence," he said. "You know, I had been throwing guys out the same way for years. I didn't have the strongest arm around, but I got rid of the ball and I made accurate throws.
"But when you lose confidence, you begin doubting yourself. I got off to a bad start, and it went from there."
It went badly, and by the end of the year, Hoiles was splitting time with Mark Parent. Frustrated by the experience, Hoiles decided to take his old approach to spring training. "This year, I wanted to start early," he said. "I wanted to come in here and work on getting rid of the ball quickly."
Hoiles is participating in nearly all of the drills, catching pitchers in the bullpen, cutting loose.
"As far as I'm concerned, my arm is healthy, it feels fine, and all the [speculation] will be put to rest," Hoiles said.
But probably not until after Opening Day, if he throws to second and third base effectively. The Orioles' coaching staff believes he'll improve, if for no other reason than the addition of Jimmy Key, a left-handed pitcher extremely hard to run on, and the presence of Mike Mussina, who has a quick delivery toward home plate.
Opposing runners have been fearless against Hoiles, but now he'll get some help, if new pitching coach Ray Miller follows up and forces Orioles pitchers to hold runners better.
Hoiles needs that. "You know, it's like a two-piece puzzle," the catcher said. "If one piece isn't working right or it doesn't fit, it doesn't matter how well you throw. I'd get into situations when I knew I had a slow pitcher and the runners might take off and that I had to made a good throw. I'd rush and throw it away.
"But I'm trying to put that behind me. I'm looking ahead."
Opposing base stealers may not be quite so aggressive against Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles this year. The subtraction of David Wells from the staff and the addition of Jimmy Key should help tremendously. Wells allowed 26 stolen bases in 30 attempts last season (87 percent). Key is perhaps the best in the game at holding runners. How runners fared against Key and other Orioles last season:
Pitcher .......... SBA .. SB .. Pct.
Jimmy Key .......... 8 ... 2 .... 25
Terry Mathews ...... 6 ... 2 .... 33
Mike Mussina ...... 14 ... 6 .... 43
Arthur Rhodes ...... 5 ... 3 .... 60
Alan Mills ......... 6 ... 4 .... 67
Rocky Coppinger ... 24 .. 21 .... 88
Scott Erickson .... 36 .. 32 .... 89
Shawn Boskie ...... 19 .. 17 .... 89
Randy Myers ........ 3 ... 3 ... 100
Jesse Orosco ....... 6 ... 6 ... 100
Pub Date: 2/23/97