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Perhaps at end, Drabek finds comfort, if not much interest; Free-agent pitcher grows to embrace the home life


Doug Drabek abstains from the word "retirement" but the 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner and Orioles starting pitcher concedes he has likely made the final appearance of a career as consistent as it was understated.

In the same week that fellow Orioles starter Jimmy Key called an end to a 15-year career, Drabek said, "Everybody comes to that point, some sooner than others. You just have to realize when it is and try not to overstay your position where you're just hanging on."

A free agent after 13 years, five teams, three division championships and 398 appearances, Drabek says he has received tepid interest from only two teams since struggling through an injury-marred 6-11 season. He won only once after May 28 and was limited by strained pectoral and groin muscles.

Drabek's struggles contrasted with a glossy six-year term with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1987-92 and four years with the Houston Astros that included 12 wins and a 2.84 ERA during the strike-shortened 1994 season. In 1990, Drabek earned the Cy Young Award by winning 22 of 33 starts while crafting a career-low 2.76 ERA for then-pitching coach Ray Miller.

"In Pittsburgh he pitched about every clutch game we had," recalled Miller, who as Orioles manager encouraged his signing a one-year, $1.8 million contract in December 1997. "He was the ultimate money pitcher."

Drabek thrived because of a sinker, the pitch that ultimately abandoned him last season when he allowed 167 base runners in 108 2/3 innings.

"I think I came to the realization that my starting days were over for one reason or another," admitted Drabek, 36, who has received no guaranteed offers. "If someone was talking about relieving for a year or two, all right."

The Orioles declined to offer Drabek arbitration, meaning they could not re-sign him before May. Few have shown much more enthusiasm.

"I didn't want to be put in position at 36 of having to go make a team," Drabek said. "It's not that I'm too good for that, because last year was kind of disastrous. But after 13 years, going out and having to fight to make a team for the minimum [salary] while being gone from the family for eight months doesn't excite me. There are a lot of things my family would like me to do that I haven't been around for."

If done, Drabek leaves behind a 155-134 record, a career 3.73 ERA, a pair of one-hitters and a reputation as one of the game's most stand-up players.

"He pitched well in May last year, but he never really put it together," Miller said. "I think a lack of confidence in his fastball affected his other stuff. But he will always be one of the most quality people I've ever worked with."

When the Orioles' pitching staff collapsed under injuries and suspensions last May, Drabek earned four of their 11 wins. However, his 3.32 ERA for the month contrasted a staggering 8.15 ERA for the remainder of the season.

Drabek admitted contemplating retirement near the end of last season as the tug of family became stronger. After playing for the Astros near his Woodlands, Texas, home, Drabek struggled with separation from his wife and three children while spending 1997 with the Chicago White Sox and last season in Baltimore. In recent weeks Drabek says he has decreased his time throwing in favor of golf.

"I could be at home and handle it and not get jittery like some people do," he said. "It's like a fix you've had year after year after year. I still enjoy that, but I knew if things didn't work out and I was at home I could start a new life."

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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