Guarded DeShields quietly produces; Rejected in '99, he retreats behind wall of silence despite fast start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Delino DeShields dresses behind it, listens to music behind it and even plays second base behind it. Almost a year has passed since construction started on the wall that he believes will help him maintain focus while he plays in front of a fan base, media and even an organization that he believes rejected him long ago.

Of all the encouraging offensive performances within the Orioles' surprising 10-5 start going into yesterday, DeShields' has been among the most glimmering. He entered yesterday holding the major-league lead with seven stolen bases, was batting .328 and had four extra-base hits. Coming off a winter spent rehabilitating his right leg from season-ending surgery, he more closely resembles the National League player who stole 129 bases in 1996-98 than the first-year American League player who stole only 11 of 19 attempts last season.

ka-5 "Bop's a quiet guy. There's nothing wrong with that. He's a great guy once you get to know him," said catcher Charles Johnson, who played against DeShields for four years in the National League. "But if he doesn't want you to come in, you're not getting in."

ka-0 With few exceptions, DeShields doesn't do media, another barrier within a city that wants to embrace its heroes as personalities as much as cheer them as athletes.

"I'll talk at the end. Right now, I just want to play," he said last week.

So it goes with the ultimate marriage of convenience.

Six weeks into the regime of harried general manager Frank Wren, things were happening quickly at the warehouse. Pouty Roberto Alomar and the Orioles divorced after three turbulent seasons. The most eligible free-agent second baseman was Jose Offerman, whom Boston quickly signed for a staggering $26 million over four years. DeShields signed a three-year, $12.5 million contract on Dec. 4, 1998, four days after the Orioles invested $65 million in right fielder Albert Belle and three days after incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro rejected the club's five-year, $50 million offer.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who planned to transplant DeShields to the outfield, represented the Orioles' only real competition but were blown away by the three-year offer.

Citing his Delaware roots, DeShields said he was glad to be coming home even if it meant jumping the National League after nine seasons. The Orioles obtained one of the best athletes in the state's history and a talent so impressive that he rejected a basketball scholarship to Villanova to sign with the Montreal Expos as a shortstop.

He is keenly aware of the game's history and his socks are worn high in appreciation for the Negro leagues. In the off-season he has served as a mentor to kids near his Fairburn home south of Atlanta. His home state once declared a day in his honor. For a cautious but engaging guy, coming home was supposed to be good.

Yet beginning on March 4, 1999, his perspective began to change radically. On that day, outfield prospect Luis Matos smashed a hooking line drive that broke the thumb on DeShields' glove hand -- a freakish play few could remember and one that became an omen for the rest of the season. DeShields returned to experience lower back pain and leg weakness. At no time was he at 100 percent.

"Until the last few weeks, the fans here haven't seen him play like he can," says utility player Jeff Conine, another NL transplant. "He's a tremendous base stealer, he's got power for a guy his size, he can bunt. He's a weapon."

DeShields immediately heard the cheers for rookie Jerry Hairston and soon thereafter the talk-show campaign for him to be traded followed, with criticism from the stands. At the same time, he felt the weakness in his thigh that sapped his explosiveness.

"It kind of woke me up a little bit. I expected to come over here and basically roll," he said in February.

Not until late August did DeShields actually confirm his leg weakness to the team. He already had endured back stiffness that once took him to the SkyDome turf when he attempted to move laterally. Three times DeShields landed on the disabled list, never sensing regret from the stands.

"I'm not pointing fingers," he said this spring. "It's just tough to deal with when you put it on the line and they didn't appreciate it."

Brady Anderson remembers a late August game in Cleveland. Thrown out easily on the front end of a double steal, DeShields conceded, "I can't run."

"Bop's a great athlete. He's also a speed player," said Anderson. "If you take away his legs, you take away a lot of his game. For an athlete like Bop, there's no greater frustration than when your body doesn't allow you to do what you've done your entire career."

Mixed with his steely reception at home, the experience hardened DeShields. He declined to attend January's FanFest, doesn't sit for interviews with broadcast rights holders and has adopted a more mercenary outlook, insisting two months ago, "Probably my only goal this year is to play well enough to be mentioned in trade rumors in July. If they're talking about trading me in July, I know I'm [playing well]. That's probably my only goal this year."

ka-5 Hairston arrived less than two years after being made an 11th-round selection in the 1997 draft. Raised in a big-league clubhouse, Hairston had no problem revealing an outgoing, confident personality. Within an angry clubhouse, he stood out all the more.

ka-0 Quite unintentionally, each player came to symbolize something larger in the passion play that is an Orioles season.

DeShields represented majority owner Peter Angelos' long-standing use of free agency as a marketing device as much as a thread within a grand tapestry. Within a smoldering and sometimes mutinous clubhouse, Hairston stood out as a refreshing (and productive) organization product, perhaps the first everyday player the team had drafted, developed and deployed in a generation.

Hairston moves like a grade-schooler in his first fire drill, all quickness and energy. DeShields often seems like syrup from the bottle, languid and smooth.

ka-5 "They can make the same play but it looks different," said Johnson. "Jerry's shorter than Bop and he might have to scramble for a ball that Delino might seem to glide after. They both make the play, but it looks flashier with Jerry."

DeShields does carry defensive limitations. Shortcomings to his backhand side can irritate pitchers, as occurred Thursday when Mike Mussina reacted to his first-inning whiff on a Fred McGriff grounder. At times, DeShields has groused about portrayals of Hairston as "the next Joe Morgan." However, he insists no jealousy exists toward the younger player.

ka-0 "It was like [the press] was painting this picture of me against Jerry and I didn't really appreciate that," said DeShields. "Jerry's career is in front of him. He's a young brother, and it was like you were trying to pit me against him, so to speak, and I didn't appreciate it. So I wasn't going to talk."

Now DeShields only plays, inside the wall.

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