Connection to Baltimore turns into destination for Morales; Instead of hitting Rochester, catcher gets first big break after Myers pulls up limping; OPENING DAY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Orioles completed their final exhibition game Saturday, catcher Willie Morales was told to jump on the plane to Baltimore for yesterday's workout. No explanation was given. He didn't need one.

Morales was on the threshold of making his first big-league club, a move that became official yesterday when Greg Myers was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a severely strained left hamstring. Morales, 27, will back up Charles Johnson until Myers returns.

"The last couple of days it's inevitable that you're going to think about it," Morales said. "At the same time, I'm out there still trying to do my best and still make an impression. You can never say that anything's for sure, and I just wanted to make sure I kept myself in good standing with the ballclub. I didn't want to leave anything to chance.

"I didn't want to feel like I was trying to win a job. I came in to show them what I could do and try to impress the manager. I'm definitely happy. Not comfortable by any means, but definitely happy."

Morales played well enough this spring to move past Tommy Davis for the starting job at Triple-A Rochester had Myers re- mained healthy. Instead, by hitting .500 (8-for-16) with a home run in 16 spring games, he was in position to be retained by manager Mike Hargrove.

"He's done a good job as far as receiving the ball and working the staff. In spring training, he was one of our better guys doing that," Hargrove said. "Willie made this club because of what he did in spring training. How much I use him, we'll play that by ear."

Hargrove seemed confident that Myers would be ready when eligible to come off the disabled list. Myers had been sidelined with a slight hamstring pull, but the injury worsened considerably when he tried to leave the batter's box Saturday after connecting for a home run against Cincinnati Reds reliever Scott Williamson in the seventh inning.

Myers' front spikes caught in the dirt and the pain was so intense that he struggled to make it around the bases, infuriating Williamson in the process. Convinced he was shown up by Myers' deliberate pace, Williamson threw at Cal Ripken, the inning's next hitter. Catcher Benito Santiago called time and apparently informed last year's National League Rookie of the Year that Myers had suffered an injury.

"You don't ever want to lose a guy like Greg Myers," Hargrove said. "He's a very good offensive catcher in a backup role, which is a big plus for us, but it's better to get him healthy. I thought we were over the hump [Saturday], so I went ahead and played him. Obviously he wasn't."

Myers, 33, who signed as a free agent in late December, also had been confident that his hamstring was healed. "I was feeling pretty good. I had gone through some treatment and was running. Even catching, I didn't feel a thing," he said.

This is Myers' 10th trip to the disabled list since breaking into the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He missed about a month last season with a strained right hamstring.

"This is beyond frustration for me," he said. "Anytime you get hurt, especially when it's happened a lot before, you don't want it to ever happen again."

Morales' resume includes 660 minor-league games, including 102 last season with the Oakland Athletics' Double-A Midland team, for which he batted .280 with 16 homers and 71 RBIs. He led Texas League catchers with a .996 fielding percentage, committing two errors behind the plate. He was signed by the Orioles in December as a minor-league free agent.

There were times when Morales wondered whether he would ever get a chance in the majors. When those doubts crept into his mind, he would remind himself to be patient. It paid off yesterday.

"There aren't a whole lot of players in the majors who get on that fast track and go right to the major leagues," he said. "More often than not, it's a guy who put his time in and had to struggle for everything he's got. For me, it's definitely been an uphill battle. I think that I'll appreciate this a lot more than if I didn't have to work as hard for it."

Morales is among three rookies on the Opening Day roster, including reliever B. J. Ryan and utility infielder Jesus Garcia.

To make room for Morales on the 40-man roster, the Orioles outrighted pitcher Richard Negrette to Rochester. Negrette was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in December for minor-league infielder Augie Ojeda.

Kirby, May on move

The Orioles completed their 25-man roster by reassigning outfielders Wayne Kirby and Derrick May to Rochester, two moves that had been anticipated long before yesterday's workout at Camden Yards.

Kirby's only chance to stick with the club would have been if Hargrove decided to keep an extra outfielder and send infielder Jerry Hairston to the minors, where he could play every day. Hairston is expected to wind up there April 9 when the club adds No. 5 starter Jose Mercedes.

Kirby batted .178 with eight RBIs in 45 at-bats. He swung the bat with more authority the last week of camp. May, who appeared in 26 games with the Orioles last season, hit .250 in 40 at-bats.

"It's always difficult when you send people out," said Hargrove, who managed Kirby in Cleveland for parts of six seasons.

"They both had good springs. They're good players with good hearts. They deserve better. It's just a situation where they couldn't stay with the club."

'I've turned the page'

No matter how hard the media tries to play up the obvious angle of today's game, Hargrove won't play along.

Being fired by the Indians after last season, despite leading them to a fifth consecutive American League Central title, doesn't make this series any more meaningful than the others. That's Hargrove's story, and he's sticking to it.

"I'd hope there's more about me than revenge," he said.

Hargrove did acknowledge that he has thought about the series, and called his encounter with the Indians "a little bittersweet."

"I have a lot of good friends there, and it'll be nice to see them," he said. "But beyond that, I've turned the page. I'm glad to be a Baltimore Oriole."

When will Cal hit 3,000?

Cal Ripken is nine hits away from 3,000. Guess when he will reach the milestone. Go to www.sunspot.net/orioles to cast your vote.

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