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Hoiles catches walking papers; Orioles release starter of last 8 years; Conine obtained for Fussell; Hip spurs 'toughest' decision; Conine offers RH bat, flexibility in OF, at 1st

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- Manager Ray Miller described it as the most difficult thing he has ever had to do in the game. Jesse Orosco stopped by for an embrace. Before a game that otherwise held no meaning, the Orioles turned away a piece of their heart.

Nearing the end of spring training, the club made a gut-wrenching decision yesterday when it released longtime starting catcher and clubhouse pillar Chris Hoiles, then replaced his right-handed bat by trading pitching prospect Chris Fussell to the Kansas City Royals for veteran outfielder/first baseman Jeff Conine.

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While general manager Frank Wren gave logical explanations for each move, it couldn't lessen the emotion of the moment.

"It's going to be hard on everybody," Hoiles said. "This is all my family's seen me do since I was 6 or 7 years old. It's all my wife's seen me do. It's all I've done.

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"I'm taking it pretty easy right now, but it's going to catch up to me in time. This is going to be one of my hardest Opening Days. I'm going to have to sit and watch. I was right in the middle of it for eight years; it's going to catch up to me."

In releasing its starting catcher from the previous eight seasons, the club cited health considerations. Hoiles has been diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that would have prevented him from catching and allowed him spot duty at first base and a role as right-handed designated hitter.

Those roles will now be assigned to Conine, who hit eight home runs with 43 RBIs during an injury-scarred 1998 season. Conine may join the team today in Birmingham, Ala.

In return, the Orioles dealt Fussell, 22, one of their top-rated pitching prospects who apparently failed to enjoy the same standing with Wren as with the previous front-office regime. After beginning last season at Double-A Bowie, Fussell went 5-2 at Rochester before making three September appearances (0-1, 8.38 ERA) with the Orioles.

As for Hoiles, the move disappointed him, but did not come as a complete shock. Frustrated over subtle indications he had picked up from Miller, he sought a meeting two weeks ago and was notified of his uncertain standing.

"A couple days ago it sounded like I was going to be on the Opening Day roster," Hoiles said. "I found out otherwise today. I don't know if you can be prepared for it because it's all I've ever done. But the possibility was in the back of my mind because of the injury. If I didn't have this I don't think there would have been a problem."

Wren denied a direct link between the two moves, insisting Hoiles' release was "inevitable" because of his physical problems. Without Conine, however, the Orioles would have turned over the same role to rookie Willis Otanez, who has struggled offensively after a breakout start to spring training. Now Otanez appears slotted as a backup to third baseman Cal Ripken and a pinch hitter.

Hoiles' family had left Ohio for Baltimore on Thursday. Hoiles said they would likely remain in town this season while their new home is under construction. Meanwhile, he said he will consider an offer to remain with the organization as a roving catching instructor and possibly graduate to a minor-league manager next season.

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"I'm not burning any bridges at this point," Hoiles said.

Questions about his throwing arm and back had long contributed to Hoiles' reputation as a marginal defensive catcher. However, he remained one of the Orioles' most productive hitters despite his reduced playing time last season, when he contributed 15 home runs and 56 RBIs in 267 at-bats.

Wren had discussed the necessity for Hoiles' release with majority owner Peter Angelos while the team was in Havana for last Sunday's exhibition against a Cuban all-star team.

Angelos signed off on the move, which still obligates the club to pay Hoiles his $3.7 million salary for this season. This was to be the final installment of Hoiles' five-year contract. It is the largest single-season salary the Orioles have ever eaten.

"It was a much more difficult decision from a personal standpoint than from a financial standpoint," insisted Wren, who notified Hoiles of the move in Miller's office about 3 1/2 hours before last night's exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves.

Miller added: "In all my years in baseball this was singularly the toughest thing I have had to do."

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Ace pitcher Mike Mussina echoed the sentiment.

"There haven't been many days tougher than this one," Mussina said. "This is one of the toughest."

Hoiles, a.k.a. Tractor Man, earned universal respect within a veteran clubhouse for his uncomplaining service through pain and regular criticism of his defensive skills. Hoiles never went public with his condition as an excuse for his poor percentage against opposing base stealers or his diminished playing time last season.

"I knew he wasn't going to catch this year. But it's entirely different when you're used to seeing a guy in the clubhouse every day for 8 1/2 years and then one day he's gone," Mussina said. "It's a business and everyone knows it. But this one is hard to take."

After his back and hip condition limited him to only 83 games behind the plate last season, Hoiles arrived at Fort Lauderdale resigned to a diminished catching load. However, on the first day, Hoiles experienced severe pain in his hip. He sought a meeting with Miller in which he admitted he could no longer handle the chore.

He didn't catch an inning all spring.

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Projected as a backup first baseman and right-handed designated hitter, Hoiles batted only .189 with one home run and eight RBIs in 21 games. More telling, Hoiles labored noticeably when running and appeared stiff in the field, prompting Miller to cite repeatedly his physical limitations.

Hoiles, 34, underwent X-rays and an MRI last year and was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that may ultimately require replacement surgery. He had complained to several teammates and coaches of the condition since the 1997 season. Prior to last season Hoiles aggravated it while running on a treadmill at his Ohio home.

The club never fully disclosed the condition; however, Hoiles conceded last August that chronic lower back pain coupled with his hip would change his role in 1999.

Conine, 32, provides versatility to a graybeard bench beset by injuries and/or lacking speed. Wren insists Conine's problems with a torn abdominal muscle are in the past, though his production never recovered from last year's early-season absence.

Once a consistent power hitter, Conine managed only eight home runs while primarily batting sixth for the Royals. A .301 hitter the last five seasons vs. left-handed pitching, his average slipped to .241 last season, and .256 overall.

Jeff Conine file

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Age: 32 (turns 33 June 27)

Height, weight: 6-1, 220

Bats/throws: right/right

Career highlights: 1992: Selected by Marlins in expansion draft 1993: Tied major-league rookie record for most games (162) Third in Rookie of the Year vote 1994: Named to All-Star team 1995: Named All-Star Game MVP after hitting game-winning homer Consecutive-game streak ended at 307 Finished fourth in NL in RBIs 1996: Hit eight homers in May 1997: Hit .361 in first 20 games Went 9-for-42 with three RBIs in postseason as Marlins won World Series Traded from Marlins to Royals for P Blaine Mull after season Left Marlins as all-time team leader in hits (737), RBIs (422), doubles (122) and batting average (.291) 1998: On disabled list March 25-May 5, July 27-Aug. 19.

Major-league statistics

Yr Team -------- G --- AB --- R --- H --- 2B --- 3B --- HR --- RBI --- Avg. -- BB -- SO -- SB

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'90 K.C. ---------- 9 ---- 20 ---- 3 ---- 5 ---- 2 ----- 0 ----- 0 ------ 2 ------- .250 --- 2 ----- 5 ----- 0

'92 K.C. ---------- 28 -- 91 ---- 10 -- 23 --- 5 ----- 2 ----- 0 ------ 9 ------- .253 --- 8 ----- 23 --- 0

'93 Florida ----- 162 - 595 -- 75 -- 174 - 24 --- 3 ----- 12 ---- 79 ------ .292 --- 52 --- 135 - 2

'94 Florida ----- 115 - 451 -- 60 -- 144 - 27 --- 6 ----- 18 ---- 82 ------ .319 --- 40 --- 92 --- 1

'95 Florida ----- 133 - 483 -- 72 -- 146 - 26 --- 2 ----- 25 ---- 105 ---- .302 ---- 66 -- 94 --- 2

'96 Florida ----- 157 - 597 -- 84 -- 175 - 32 --- 2 ----- 26 ---- 95 ------ .293 ---- 62 -- 121 - 1

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'97 Florida ----- 151 - 405 -- 46 -- 98 --- 13 --- 1 ----- 17 ---- 61 ------ .242 ---- 57 -- 89 --- 2

'98 K.C. ---------- 93 --- 309 -- 30 -- 79 --- 26 --- 0 ----- 8 ----- 43 ------ .256 ---- 26 -- 68 --- 3

Totals ----------848 ---2951 -380 - 844 - 155 -- 16 --- 106 -- 476 ---- .286 -- 313 - 627 -- 11

Hoiles highlights

Ranks second on Orioles' list in career grand slams with eight. Is ninth in home runs (151) and slugging average (.467).

Is third among active players in homers hit by a catcher (142), behind Mike Piazza (197) and Benito Santiago (159).

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Became ninth major-leaguer to hit two grand slams in one game by connecting twice against the Indians on Aug. 14, 1998.

With two outs and Orioles trailing by three runs, hit 3-2 pitch from Mariners' Norm Charlton for game-ending grand slam in ninth inning May 17, 1996.

Led AL in innings caught (838 2/3) in 1994.

Was voted Most Valuable Oriole in 1993, when he became fifth catcher in AL history to hit .300 or better with 25 or more homers. His 29 homers that season were second most for an Orioles catcher behind Gus Triandos' 30 in 1958. His 82 RBIs that year set an Orioles record for catchers.

In 1992, finished with fewest RBIs (40) in major-league history for player with 20 home runs. Homered once every 15.1 at-bats, the league's fourth-best ratio.

Hit game-tying grand slam in ninth inning off Royals' Jeff Montgomery on June 23, 1991.

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Acquired by Orioles from Tigers with pitchers Robinson Garces and Cesar Mejia for outfielder Fred Lynn on Aug. 31, 1988.

Pub Date: 4/03/99


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