FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If the Orioles are looking for omens, Joe Carter may have handed them something powerful this week.
Hitting into a stiff wind Tuesday against Minnesota Twins starter Frankie Rodriguez, Carter sent a ball to the Fort Lauderdale Stadium left-field warning track where it was caught. When Carter returned to the dugout he discovered he had been swinging a fractured bat. The next time up Carter used fresh wood against Dan Serafini and powered a drive into the netting above the left-field fence.
This winter the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, baseball's worst offense this decade, discarded Carter like sotted kindling. The Orioles, judging him the answer to an incomplete situation at designated hitter, signed him and declared it a coup.
"When you're sitting in the other dugout you know there are ways to get him out. But when you're late in a close game, you're sitting there thinking to yourself, 'Don't let this guy come to the plate' because you know he'll find a way to get it done," says Orioles manager Ray Miller.
Carter turns 38 tomorrow, making him an elder even within the Orioles' veteran clubhouse. He also is one of the game's steadiest run-producers. Two years ago he generated 72 extra-base hits, including 30 home runs, and 107 RBIs. This season he is projected as a contributor, not the main man.
"You look around this clubhouse and you see All-Stars and Hall of Fame players. No one here should have to do it all. No one has to think that," Carter says.
Importing Carter addresses several needs, some tangible and others not. He represents a possible right-handed enforcer behind first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who struggled and eventually fell victim to impatience last year without the presence of Bobby Bonilla. Miller has emphasized that Palmeiro constrict his strike zone while he has encouraged Carter to expand his. That shouldn't be a tough sell for Carter, the rare player with 10 seasons of 100 or more RBIs without once taking 50 or more walks.
Brought about by the extended losses of Eric Davis and Chris Hoiles along with Cal Ripken's half-season of pain, the perception of the Orioles as skewed toward left-handed power also caused them to see more left-handed starters (52) than any other team in the majors last season.
"They were bringing lefties out of the bushes against us," said Miller.
Coincidentally, Palmeiro had the league's fifth-lowest average (.213) against left-handers.
"It's just more tools. People say everyone wants to play, and that's true, but when you're taking a guy out of the game and putting Joe Carter in, that's showing something," says Miller, who plans to move Carter into the lineup behind whichever left-handed hitter needs the most support.
Miller doesn't project Carter as a full-time player but predicts he will receive at least 400 at-bats. Carter will most often platoon with designated hitter Harold Baines and occasionally play left field in place of B. J. Surhoff. Palmeiro also may back away from the 160-game average of the last two seasons to afford Carter opportunities at first base.
"This is a great lineup. I'm still going to get my chances and I'll still get my numbers," Carter said. "I've been able to drive in runs my entire career and I plan to do it again this year."
The Orioles wait expectantly. After a stop-and-start offensive season in 1997, they look forward to an offense able to match the glitz of its names.
"It's a big thing for us to have a guy like Joe in the lineup or able to come off the bench late. He can play the outfield. He can DH. He's a great hitter," said Palmeiro.
Even with the offensively woeful Blue Jays, Carter managed 102 RBIs -- 16.2 percent of the team total -- despite a .234 average and a pronounced power slide. Last year marked the first time since 1990 that he failed to hit 25 home runs. Managerial intrigue only complicated the season. A Cito Gaston loyalist, Carter chafed at the manager's ouster, even wearing Gaston's number against the Orioles on the day of his firing.
The Blue Jays eventually refused to offer Carter arbitration for fear he might accept. A $6 million salary that couldn't be cut by more than 20 percent cemented his fate, leaving Carter to sign with the Orioles for $3.3 million.
"I thought I was going back but I guess they had their reasons for not wanting me back. They never told me," says Carter. "It was a tough thing not only for me, but my family as well. That's where I wanted to end my career."
When that became impossible he began to phone other players, especially second baseman Roberto Alomar, a former teammate in San Diego and Toronto. The feedback he received convinced him that Baltimore offered something special.
Carter says 1998 is his goodbye tour despite being only 22 home runs shy of 400 and 118 RBIs short of 1,500, magical plateaus that he could readily reach by playing into 1999. Asked whether several more years might embellish his Hall of Fame candidacy, Carter sidesteps by returning the conversation to the present, which the Orioles hope will be an extension of his past.
Pub Date: 3/06/98