FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There's nothing unusual about a relief pitcher having a little afternoon catch during the fourth week in February.
Except Arthur Rhodes spent yesterday throwing to himself inside the Orioles clubhouse.
And Rhodes wasn't throwing baseballs. His idea of fun was heaving a 10-pound cantaloupe-sized yellow ball against a trampoline and catching the rebound. Not once, or twice, but over and over. Teammates and coaches squeezed past, saying nothing, until one bemused observer couldn't resist.
"Hey, Art," said manager Ray Miller. "That would be easier with a lighter ball."
Even within a veteran clubhouse of fitness freaks, Rhodes stands out. The left-handed reliever who suffered through an injury-marred 1998 arrived at camp noticeably trimmer, decidedly more upbeat and demonstrably more vital. A combination of newfangled braces, modified diet and intense workouts allowed Rhodes to arrive 10 pounds lighter than when he left Baltimore last September.
Protein milkshakes and egg whites have replaced Rhodes' love of cholesterol-laden foods. Aerobics now take up as much of his time as golf.
"Obviously you have to do more than diet to look like that. He's obviously done a lot of work," Miller said.
"It's made a big difference," said Rhodes, at 29 the youngest member of the Orioles' bullpen. "I feel much better. I've got more energy. I'm looking forward to getting started."
Each night before going to sleep, Rhodes wraps his left arm in a brace that includes an opening for his elbow. Magnets ring the opening. Rhodes says he doesn't know how the device works, only that the soreness has lessened.
"It's a lot calmer than it was," he said. "The pain has pretty much gone away. I'm not sure what it does, but it helps, I know that."
Rhodes' conditioning binge coincides with a critical juncture in his career. Following a 4-4 season that included only 45 relief appearances covering 77 innings and allegations that he was being overworked, Rhodes enters his final season before free agency.
Hindered by chronic knee soreness and a tender left elbow, Rhodes' career is flecked with injuries. Last year was no exception as a burned-out starting rotation created additional stress on a thin bullpen.
Right-handed middle man Alan Mills was occasionally limited because of his inability to take anti-inflammatory medication. Rhodes, equally delicate because of a health history including two shoulder surgeries and a knee operation, was frequently called upon to pitch in long relief and would sometimes warm several times before entering.
Rhodes chafed at the role and eventually went on the disabled list from July 5 to Aug. 17 with a strained elbow. On the day the Orioles made the move, Rhodes blistered Miller for using him excessively.
"There weren't a whole lot of options at the time," Miller said. "My dilemma last year was we had [Terry] Mathews and [Norm] Charlton, and they couldn't get us out of the fifth inning. I had Jesse [Orosco] and Armando [Benitez] late. That put a lot of strain on Mills and Art. That shouldn't be a problem this year."
This year, instead of reaching for a sweet roll, Rhodes would settle for a consistent role.
"I just need a role -- the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth," the former 10-game winner said. "Don't give me the fifth, sixth and seventh, a day off, then another fifth, sixth and seventh."
Rhodes admitted "I'm not a one-inning guy now," but he would appreciate more predictability. The strain of warming several times in a game took as much of a toll as his game usage.
Used judiciously, Rhodes was able to provide the Orioles 19 relief wins during Davey Johnson's two-year tenure. Rhodes has attempted to do his part by shedding weight to lessen the burden on his knees.
"Arthur could give you three solid innings at a time, but then you couldn't use him for three or four days," said Miller. "You like to have a quality arm toward the end of every day when you have a lead."
"Last year I started working at keeping my weight down and staying in shape," Rhodes said. "This winter I wasn't just concerned with taking pounds off but in improving my conditioning."
Rhodes admits he was prodded by his girlfriend, who introduced him to tae bo, a cross between karate and boxing that has gained a following of fitness enthusiasts seeking a more entertaining aerobic workout. Instead of maintaining a weightlifting regimen, Rhodes opted for a routine to enhance stamina and flexibility.
"I got the tape. It's fun. It's something I can stay with," said Rhodes, whose knees prevented him from performing many conditioning drills last season.
Bread and meat are nowhere on Rhodes' menu. He prepares a protein shake in the morning, allows himself chicken nuggets for lunch and eats a reasonable, low-fat dinner. Then there are these afternoon catches against the clubhouse trampoline to reinforce conditioning.
"Some people get the message later than others," said Miller. "I think for Arthur the message came in time for him to make himself a more durable guy. That should be a positive for him and for us."
Pub Date: 2/24/99