CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Bitten by an exhibition schedule that lasted one game too long, the Orioles expect to put Greg Myers on the disabled list today after the backup catcher severely strained his left hamstring on a home run swing in yesterday's seventh inning.
The move would force the Orioles to retain career minor-leaguer Willie Morales, whom they signed as a minor-league free agent last December. Morales, 27, has 660 games of professional experience, including 129 at Triple-A Edmonton, but has never played in a major-league game.
Myers said he wrenched the leg while trying to leave the batter's box. He caught a spike and felt the hamstring give. Forced to circle the bases after hitting the first home run ever in newly christened BellSouth Park, Myers managed to make his way before limping back to the dugout. He will be examined further today in Baltimore but manager Mike Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift conceded a roster move is likely.
"It's not good," Myers said after treatment. "As I was leaving the box I moved to bring my left leg over and felt it. I was just trying to get around the bases."
The bizarre injury occurred when Myers hammered a home run to dead center field over the 20-foot backdrop. What initially appeared to be an exaggerated home run trot was much more serious.
"I'm not saying it's a certainty he'll have to go on" the disabled list, Thrift said. "But I think it's a reasonable expectation."
Charles Johnson had handled most of the catching duties for the last week after Myers suffered a minor hamstring pull. Hargrove met with his backup catcher Friday afternoon in Atlanta and decided to give him an additional day to mend.
"We thought it was better. That's why he was in there," Hargrove said.
Yesterday's injury to Myers leaves the Orioles in a precarious position similar to last season when Johnson was backed by the inexperienced Mike Figga, a waiver claim from the New York Yankees.
As a result, Johnson was asked to catch 29 consecutive games in one stretch and suffered a dramatic dip in production during the season's final seven weeks.
Morales played most of last season at the Oakland Athletics' Double-A affiliate in Midland, where he batted .280 with 16 home runs and 71 RBIs. He singled in the eighth inning yesterday to raise his average to .500 (8-for-16).
Thrift endorsed Morales' defensive credentials. "He can call a good game. If a major-league average arm is 50, I'd say he's a 65."
Sticking with those you know
Thrift says the club's reluctance to pursue pitchers waived by other clubs is largely because of a commitment to its own players "whenever it's a close call."
Despite the temporary absence of No. 2 starter Scott Erickson because of arthroscopic elbow surgery and Jason Johnson due to ineffectiveness, Thrift said the availability of a group featuring veterans John Burkett and Pete Schourek was not enough to force a change in plans.
The Orioles have committed the fourth and fifth spots in their rotation to Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes, who own a combined 14 major-league wins in 43 total starts. Maduro finished spring with a 1-1 record and 3.71 ERA; Mercedes started with 13 scoreless innings and finished with an 0-2 record and 2.70 ERA.
Maduro and Mercedes combined for 24 strikeouts and only nine walks in 37 innings. Maduro is scheduled to pitch two innings at the Orioles' Sarasota, Fla., complex today then join the club in time for tomorrow's opener. Mercedes starts in Sarasota Tuesday and will be added to the 25-man roster in time for an April 9 start.
"For us to go out and get somebody, we have to be convinced that it's definitely an upgrade," Thrift said. "We haven't found that so far."
The Atlanta Braves, still trying to compensate for the season-long loss of John Smoltz, signed Burkett while Schourek remains available.
The Orioles had interest in trading for Schourek when he was with the Cincinnati Reds, but are leery of him since he received his release Thursday from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mark Portugal, jettisoned last week by the Cincinnati Reds, also has stirred little interest.
Thrift's duties yesterday weren't limited to the mundane chores of personnel decisions and baseball operations. Thrift and Reds general manager Jim Bowden were enlisted to introduce their respective starting lineups before a sellout BellSouth Park crowd.
Thrift played it straight, deviating only to introduce third baseman Cal Ripken as the "Iron Man and future Hall of Famer" while Bowden played it to the hilt for every starter. As Bowden Ken Griffey as the "most famous figure in baseball today" he was interrupted by the Famous Chicken romping onto the field.
"I think all this was Bowden's idea," Thrift said. "He's got me at a disadvantage."
Around the horn
Former President George Bush and wife Barbara threw out the first balls yesterday. The couple sported Reds warm-ups but worked both dugouts. Even in Al Gore country, the former first couple received a rousing ovation, even before Bush threw a strike. The shakedown at $10 million BellSouth Park was a rough one. In keeping with a 19th century theme, phone lines were either not in place or defective. Even when lines are fully operational, they won't be serviced by the park's title sponsor. The Orioles wrapped up their exhibition schedule with an 8-3 victory. The win bumped their spring record to 13-16. The win fell to starter Pat Rapp, who enters the season with 25 exhibition innings, second most on the club to Sidney Ponson. The Orioles drew 71,594 for their 13 spring training home games -- an average of 5,507. Last year they averaged 5,505. This year's average would have been significantly higher had a sold-out March 19 exhibition against the Boston Red Sox, matching Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez, not been rained out.