Frustrated by his performance as well as lingering weakness in his surgically repaired right shoulder, reliever Alan Mills has been granted a leave of absence by the Orioles to contemplate his future and the possibility of retirement.
Mills, 34, asked for and received permission for an open-ended leave from vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift Friday morning and remained absent from yesterday's game against the Seattle Mariners. Mills, regarded as a popular veteran influence within a transitional clubhouse, also missed Friday's 3-0 win for what manager Mike Hargrove called personal reasons.
The Orioles leave for a six-game road trip after today's game. Thrift, who spoke with the pitcher several hours before yesterday's game, said he was unsure if Mills would be on the team charter.
"We're not pressuring him to do anything," Thrift said. "We want Alan to take all the time he needs to make a decision he's comfortable with."
Mills remains in Baltimore but declined comment yesterday.
Mills' deliberation follows a difficult 12 months in which he has endured rehabilitation after September shoulder surgery. An important, hard-throwing piece of the Orioles' bullpen from 1992 to '98, he had recently confided his frustration to several teammates and coaches.
Typically upbeat and encouraging, Mills had grown increasingly despondent over his inability to contribute. A troubled outing in Thursday's 15-0 loss to Oakland intensified his self-examination.
Summoned in the eighth inning with one out, bases loaded and the Orioles trailing 8-0, Mills forced home one run with a walk before surrendering a grand slam to third baseman Eric Chavez. Mills finished the inning and stalked into the Orioles' clubhouse. He returned to the dugout but was replaced by Jorge Julio.
"Some guys have great pride. They're competitors," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said. "He's not doing what he knows he's capable of doing. He's upset at himself. Personally, I think he's being too hard on himself."
Since returning from a three-month rehabilitation July 12, Mills has suffered a 10.38 ERA and allowed 29 base runners in 13 innings covering 14 appearances.
Mills earned a win on Aug. 1 and his ERA stood at 3.52 on Aug. 8; however, he has appeared only five times since, surrendering five home runs while being charged with 12 earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. Unable to take anti-inflammatory medication because of a kidney condition, he hasn't appeared in consecutive games since being activated. Shoulder weakness and difficulty warming up repeatedly also have contributed to his lack of use.
"Looking at him when he first came up, he was used to the routine he had established in the minor leagues - get up, get in the game; pitch an inning, off two days, then pitch again," Hendricks said. "Unfortunately, once you get to this level, you don't have that luxury if you're a reliever."
"Why does a guy throw 91 mph one day, then throw 86 three days later? He's not ready to pitch," Thrift said. "Does he have anything wrong with him? No. He feels fine. He has no aches. His arm feels weak but there's nothing on the disabled list that says 'weak.' "
The Orioles released veteran left-hander Chuck McElroy to make roster room for Mills, who never became convinced his shoulder was fully recovered.
"I don't think anybody should pitch in the major leagues if they aren't prepared to play there," Thrift said. "Sometimes we're forced to play guys because we don't have somebody else."
Mills' aggressiveness has been compromised by his inability to run fastballs inside against right-handed hitters; meanwhile, left-handers are hitting .500 against him with four home runs in 20 at-bats.
A pending free agent who left the Orioles after the 1998 season to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mills has struggled since the Orioles reacquired him June 13, 2000, for reliever Al Reyes. Mills was 2-0 with a 6.46 ERA last season before undergoing surgery to tighten the labrum lining his shoulder.
The Orioles initially projected his return for spring training but modified the projection when Mills did not pitch until March 21.
Mills' return coincided with the team's second-half collapse and teammates and coaches believe he has placed an inordinate amount of responsibility on himself.
"Some pitch through [shoulder weakness], others don't," Hendricks said. "If the club was doing a little bit better I think he would have tried to throw through it."
Mariners reliever and former teammate Arthur Rhodes phoned Mills yesterday and tried to convince his friend not to retire. Rhodes hung up, struck by Mills' depression. "He shouldn't retire. I told him to come back and pitch. But I don't think it's going to be soon."
Around the horn
Rick Bauer will make his major-league debut today. Bauer, 24, represents one of the organization's most pleasant surprises after going 2-6 with a 3.54 ERA at Double-A Bowie before compiling a 10-4 record and 3.89 ERA in 19 games at Rochester. A fifth-round selection in the 1997 draft, the 6-foot-6 right-hander benefited from participating in an off-season conditioning program with several Orioles veterans, including shortstop Mike Bordick. ... The Orioles Appalachian (Rookie) League affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va., captured the league championship Friday by beating Elizabethton, 5-4, in the deciding game of the best-of-three playoff. The Orioles generated all their RBIs on home runs by shortstop Brian Bass, left fielder Richard Hackett and catcher Thomas Arko. Reliever Richard Salazar earned the win as the Orioles rallied from a 4-2 deficit. ... Ryan Kohlmeier rejoined the club yesterday after being promoted from Rochester along with Bauer and left-hander John Parrish. The Orioles also added coaches Marv Foley and Dave Schmidt. ... Injured pitcher Scott Erickson underwent surgery to remove a ganglia cyst from his left wrist. ... Center fielder Larry Bigbie left the game after the sixth inning with a mild strain of the left hamstring. The club listed him as day-to-day.