Chris Hoiles launches his first home run in two months, a shot so deep that manager Ray Miller fixes his eyes on the upper deck at Camden Yards, but the Orioles catcher doesn't leave the bench the next night. He collects three hits in his next start, then sits again. And again.
The pattern also held true when he consumed a steady diet of 0-for-4s and his average, a paltry .186 in late May, was taking on water like the Titanic. He's no longer a fixture in the Orioles' lineup, no longer certain on his drive home of the fate that awaits him at the park the next day.
He can see why Miller wants to keep both of his catchers fresh by dividing their time. And how, with injuries having scrambled the rotation, it's more difficult to establish the bonds that assure Hoiles of starting whenever Mike Mussina pitches, just as Lenny Webster always sets the target for Scott Erickson. Nobody has dibs on Sidney Ponson, Doug Johns and Pete Smith, just as no one was tied to Richie Lewis or Nerio Rodriguez.
It's a predicament Hoiles understands and accepts, but one he detests nonetheless. "It's been tough. In years past, I've been able to work through the struggles and get back into the swing of things. When you're struggling, the hardest thing to do is sit down. I've always been given the opportunity to work through it. And I've always gotten through it. At the end of the year, I've had pretty good numbers with the amount of at-bats I've had," he said.
"This year, it's been a little bit tough just working in here and there. You're kind of chomping at the bit to get in there."
Hoiles has started 41 of the Orioles' 81 games, Webster 38 and the since-departed Charlie Greene two. Hoiles missed a week with a bruised hand, though he probably would have returned sooner if his bat hadn't been ailing, as well.
"Lenny's done a great job. When he's in there, I root as hard as anyone. He's like a brother to me," Hoiles said. "But for seven years, I've pretty much played every day. Now, with the rotation the way it is, it makes things real tough when you don't know if you're playing until you get here.
"I used to go home at night knowing I would be in there the next day. An 0-fer is easier to swallow when you know you'll be playing the next day."
"We understand how Chris feels," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "You need to play more and get more at-bats to find your swing. But also, from a team perspective, you're between a rock and a hard place. You'd like to give him the at-bats because you think he can put up the numbers, but it's hard to give a guy the at-bats if he's hitting under .200 and not being productive."
The home run came Monday against the New York Mets, his first since April 21. With one mighty cut, he sent the ball into the left-field seats and lifted a weight off his shoulders.
"I know that's what I'm here to do, to put up power numbers," said Hoiles, who hit his fourth homer last night. "Hit doubles, hit homers, drive in runs. Believe me, there's nobody who feels it more than I do when I don't do it. But it's going to be tough with the number of at-bats I'm getting."
"You go out there and you want to do so well. You do feel a little bit more pressure on yourself, especially when guys are on base. When the opportunity presents itself, you want to cash in on it. You have to cash in on it."
Hoiles, 33, said he hasn't spoken to Miller about his situation "in any great depth or length," nor does he intend to. Never one to rock the boat, he again refuses to make waves, in part because he doesn't want to damage his chances of returning to the club next season and beyond.
"Ray's the manager of this team, and he has his views of how he wants to do things," said Hoiles, who with three straight multi-hit games has improved his average to .245, with 17 RBIs. "I could probably go in his office every day and say things, but he's the manager and he's going to run the club the way he wants to. I'm not here to say it's right or wrong."
Miller always has loved Hoiles' grit, his willingness to throw his body in front of every errant pitch, and praises the improved mechanics that have added zip to his throws. He also wants to avoid overusing Webster, whose right elbow was inflamed at the beginning of the season. Hoiles can take the wheel most of the time as long as he's driving the ball.
"I'd like to keep it a little bit more than 50-50 toward Hoiles if he starts swinging the bat well," Miller said. "I feel comfortable with either guy, calling a game, blocking the ball, all that stuff. I love both of them. You can't ask for two more quality people."
Hoiles, soon to become a father for the second time, couldn't ask for a better deal than the one he signed in 1994. One year removed from establishing career highs with a .310 average, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, he was given $3.5 million a season over five years. It was an extraordinarily generous contract, and the price tag hangs around Hoiles' neck so tightly it almost chokes him at times.
"Any time people are making millions, everybody's going to look at what their production is and compare that guy to what he's making," he said. "There is somewhat of a sense that you've got to live up to certain expectations. Sometimes, the expectations are a little bit too high."
The highest he's batted since then is last season's .259, which came in only 99 games because of a month-long stay on the disabled list with a torn knee ligament. He batted .229 the rest of the year. He's also never reached those home run and RBI totals again, coming closest in 1996 (25, 73).
Hoiles was left unprotected in the expansion draft, but there were no takers. His contract runs out after next season. Having been an Oriole since an August 1988 trade with the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Fred Lynn, Hoiles wonders where he'll reside next year. For now, the player with the third-longest tenure on the club behind Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson may be living on borrowed time.
"That's not up to me," he said. "I love it here. I've had an unbelievable time playing here. I've called this place home for eight years now. All I can do is try to go out there and do the best job I can. To me, that's the only way I'm going to be able to stay."
Malone said "the odds are good" Hoiles will return. "He has one more year on his contract. You never know for sure, but, in all probability, he'll be part of the 1999 Orioles."
At the same time, Malone also concedes the club is open to making changes if it brings improvement. "You're always looking to upgrade if you can. Sometimes that's a lot easier said than done."
It can't be any more difficult than spending another summer evening in the dugout. "I hate taking a day off. I absolutely hate sitting on the bench," Hoiles said.
"My biggest asset for any team I play on is going to be the stick in my hands. Whether I'm struggling or not struggling, I still have the capabilities of going out there and driving in runs, hitting the ball hard and doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
"When you sit on the bench, you can't do that. You can't help a team. That's been frustrating."
Before and after
Chris Hoiles' cumulative totals with the Orioles before and after signing his $3.5 million-a-year contract (through Friday):
Yrs. .. .. .. ..AB .. ..H .. ..HR .. ..RBI .. ..Avg.
'89-93 .. .. .1142 .. 311 .. . 61 .. . 160.. .. .272
'94- .. .. ...1547 .. 390 .. . 78 .. . 249.. .. .252
Pub Date: 6/28/98