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Myers catches on, especially with Johnson; '99's marathon man won't mask his delight over O's adding backup


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Charles Johnson, meet Greg Myers, your new best friend.

Of the several problems the Orioles addressed over the off-season, among the most subtle was finding a complementary catcher to place behind Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove winner who endured the distinction last season of becoming the Man in the Iron Mask.

Johnson caught day games after night games, both games of doubleheaders, even a meaningless in-season exhibition against a Cuban all-star team.

The only thing Johnson didn't catch was a break.

The Orioles addressed a nagging situation by signing the veteran, left-handed-hitting Myers, fresh off a season split between the rebuilding San Diego Padres and the National League champion Atlanta Braves, for whom he served a second tour as catcher to the stars.

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift classifies Myers as a "huge" acquisition. Factions elsewhere might label Thrift's description as hyperbole. Johnson isn't among them.

"He's a veteran guy who can handle pitchers. He's a left-handed hitter. It's a perfect fit," Johnson said. "To me, and hopefully for him, it's an ideal situation."

A .265 hitter last season, Myers has 52 career home runs, 50 against right-handed pitching. But offensive statistics are down the list on what he represents to his new team.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove says he will use Myers in day games after night games, doubleheaders and against certain right-handed pitchers. He predicts 120-130 games for Johnson. The plan is a more conventional arrangement than last season, when catching became one of numerous questionable moves.

"It depends on how and when you get to rest. If you play 120 games in a row, then a guy starts giving you days off so you play 130. That's not good. I think you intersperse days off so a guy stays healthy and productive," said Hargrove.

Johnson's backup last season, pending free agent Lenny Webster, arrived at spring training asking for a trade to enhance his market value. Manager Ray Miller tried to placate Webster by starting him in 11 of the team's first 33 games. Meanwhile, Johnson labored through April with one RBI and still-vague relationships with many pitchers, especially starter Scott Erickson and a bullpen he rarely handled in spring training. (Johnson never caught consecutive games last spring.)

When Webster was hurt trying to duck a Dwight Gooden fastball May 13, the Orioles' minor-league deficiencies became exposed. Tommy Davis was promoted from Rochester but was given only one start before New York Yankees castoff Mike Figga was claimed on waivers.

With the Orioles' season in an irreversible spiral, Johnson was asked to play and play and play. From May 5 to June 4, Johnson played in 28 consecutive games, including 27 starts. After sitting out seven of the Orioles' first 25 games, Johnson missed only 20 of their last 137. Fatigue manifested itself in Johnson's declining production over the season's dying weeks. Traditionally a second-half hitter, only one of Johnson's 16 home runs and six of his 36 extra-base hits came after Aug. 6.

"I wasn't really gassed," Johnson said. "A lot of people don't realize that in '98 I caught 132 games. In '97, including the playoffs, I caught around 140 games. The year before that I caught 120 games. I've always caught a lot. But I think the time span in which I caught those games was unusual. At the end I was able to push through and catch, but it was tough."

Johnson says he would ideally like to catch about 130 games. His only preference would be better spacing.

"Catching an entire month is hard to do. Your body's not used to doing that. Five in a row even six in a row is OK," said Johnson. "You want to have something left for the end."

Myers is experienced enough to have caught longtime Orioles left-hander and current HTS broadcaster Mike Flanagan with the Toronto Blue Jays and to have nicked Doyle Alexander for his first major-league hit in 1987. He also became Nolan Ryan's final strikeout victim in September 1993. Myers also has been touched by greatness -- sometimes a bit too hard. Horrific collisions with Boston left fielder Mike Greenwell and Detroit second baseman Lou Whitaker explain two of his nine trips to the disabled list.

Hamstrings, broken hands, blown-out knees and dislocated shoulders checker Myers' career. "It's never anything minor. It's always a big one," he said.

This spring the star-crossed Californian already has suffered the first nagging injury to a position player, a ball fouled off his right toe in batting practice.

Myers has shared time with Toronto's Pat Borders, Atlanta's Eddie Perez and Javier Lopez, California's Jorge Fabregas and San Diego's Carlos Hernandez. For years, injuries frustrated Myers' quest to establish himself as anything more than a platoon player. Now, given his two-year, $2.6 million deal with the Orioles, Myers is comfortable as Johnson's backup.

"During those times when you're not playing, you can't just sit around and not watch what's going on. You watch what your pitchers like to do. You stay in touch with C. J. and see what he's doing," said Myers. "You can't just sit back blindly and not notice what's happening. Then you're not prepared on those days you catch. But hitting is the toughest part."

To hear Myers, there will be no carping for a catching time share and apparently no assigning of certain catchers for certain pitchers.

"I realize I'm not getting any younger," said Myers, 33. "Because of injuries this is the role I have. To expect to go somewhere as an everyday guy wasn't realistic."

Here, Myers can be comfortable. A clear agenda points to a postseason goal rather than undertaking a financially motivated makeover. Myers is surrounded by veterans and has not been teased with the possibilities of regular time.

"Last year with the Padres, it was a team that went through a lot of changes after the World Series. Carlos Hernandez is signed to a big deal, so they're pretty much committed to him. It was obvious they were going with kids in the spring. It was really frustrating. The future became a consideration. I was a free agent. They knew what I could do. So why not call up a young prospect and look at him?" Myers said.

Then a good thing happened. The Padres traded him to the playoff-bound Braves, reeling from the loss of Lopez to a knee ligament tear. Two months later, something better happened and Myers became Johnson's silent partner.

"Coming into spring, I know exactly what I'm here for and what I'm supposed to do. It's a lot more settled," Myers said.

Somewhere, Johnson pumped a fist in delight.

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