FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles reliever Terry Mathews showed up at camp with a smaller waist and a shorter memory. Both should serve him well.
Lost are the extra pounds that he acquires over the course of every season, additions to a soft physique that mask his athletic ability and work ethic. Nearly forgotten are the failings over the second half of last year that damaged both his ERA and his relationship with the fans in Baltimore.
He'll never truly forget, of course. There's probably still some ringing in his ears from the booing and catcalls that greeting his entrance into Game 3 of the Division Series, and intensified when he allowed back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning of a 4-2 loss.
But if the memory isn't completely gone, it's not as fresh, either. Spring training is a time for starting over, and Mathews takes his first steps in today's exhibition opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He's scheduled to follow Mike Mussina and Nerio Rodriguez, the first time he's pitched since that fateful night at Camden Yards.
The only significance to Mathews is that he'll get more work this spring by appearing in the opening game. "They know I like to throw a lot in spring training," he said.
Fans may not recognize him, and not only because of a closely cropped hair that drew the usual dose of torment from fellow reliever Alan Mills when Mathews, 33, walked into the clubhouse yesterday. "I barely made it through the door before Millsy was on me," he said.
More pronounced is the thinning of Mathews' face, waist and thighs. He lost 16 pounds, getting down to 220, by running long distances each day at his home in Louisiana -- anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour -- and speeding up his metabolism by eating breakfast before taking his son to school.
"As of today, I feel the best I've ever felt in spring training, strength-wise, throwing-wise, control, everything," he said. "Because I was always big, I couldn't see eating an extra meal. Yet, adding breakfast is helping me lose weight. It's made a believer out of me. It's a shame it took me so long."
Mathews devoured opposing hitters during the first half of last season, and provided one of the season's more delicious moments when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in Kansas City in August. But he couldn't hold up under the strain of so many appearances and the many times he warmed up.
Mills had been lost in April to a pinched nerve in his left shoulder, the club's succession of fifth starters couldn't protect the bullpen and Mathews faded. He finished the year 4-4 with a 4.41 ERA, allowing runs in 10 of his last 19 regular-season appearances. Having been reached for only two home runs in 38 outings, Mathews gave up six in the next 19.
"I think the problem was more fatigue than anything," said pitching coach Mike Flanagan, who observed Mathews from the broadcast booth last year as a television commentator. "He had become the middle-innings savior. He really was, at times, the ace of that middle relief staff."
"I know that I didn't have the same strength in the second half," Mathews said, "but I really can't say why. I was a totally different pitcher."
He became an idle one in the postseason. Though Mathews wasn't used after Game 3 of the Division Series, he said a conversation with then-manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Ray Miller convinced him that the club hadn't lost confidence in him.
Miller, who was named manager after Johnson resigned, said Mathews' predicament had more to do with the effectiveness of other relievers. "In the playoffs last year, guys were throwing better," Miller said.
Mathews had all winter to stew over it, but chose instead to sweat.
"I still say I don't look like a baseball player and probably never will," he said, "but I know I'm in as good of condition as anyone here. There are guys who weigh as much who are proportioned differently. All of my proportion is from my waist to my thighs. It doesn't give that athletic look."
Even so, Miller liked what he saw when Mathews arrived with the rest of the pitchers last week.
"When I talked to him before, I said, 'The only thing I can do for you is to get you to come in here in shape, I'll get you in as many games as I can and you'll forget all about the other stuff.' And I was really impressed when he walked in here. Obviously, weight's a sensitive subject for him because he works so hard and, genetically, it's hard to control that. But he's lost weight in areas where it's hard to lose."
Now, all he has to do is pitch well enough to win back the fans.
JTC "It's going to be weird to see which way it goes. But as far as how it's going to affect me, it's not going to be that big of a difference. I have a job to do, and if I do it, the fans will swing back on my side."
"He's a professional," Miller said, "so he'll handle it much better. I don't have any plans of not pitching him here or not using him there or anything. I just want to get him in a lot of games and put that behind us."
Opponent: Los Angeles Dodgers
Site: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Time: 1: 05 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM) -- 3: 30 p.m., tape delay
L Starters: Dodgers' Darren Dreifort vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina
Today's Orioles lineup for the team's exhibition opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Fort Lauderdale Stadium:
2B Roberto Alomar
1B Rafael Palmeiro
RF Eric Davis
LF B.J. Surhoff
3B Cal Ripken
DH Harold Baines
C Chris Hoiles
SS Mike Bordick
P Mike Mussina
Pub Date: 2/28/98