FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Though only pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report yesterday to the Orioles' spring training complex, a few position players trickled into the facility during the morning. One of them had grown comfortable with life on the road and with his belongings stuffed into a suitcase. The southern end of Florida simply became another stop.
Infielder Brian Roberts played winter ball for the first time, returning home from Puerto Rico on Jan. 7 and leaving three days later for workouts in Arizona. He also attended the annual FanFest at the Baltimore Conventional Center before reporting early to Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
He showed up yesterday looking as though he hadn't shaved in a week, but he intended to buy a razor in compliance with the team's ban on facial hair.
"I've just been lazy," said Roberts, who was joined yesterday by position players Gary Matthews, Jeff Conine and Larry Bigbie.
Not according to his offseason schedule, which included 225 at-bats in Puerto Rico. Roberts, who appeared in only 38 games with the Orioles last season, batted .322 with two homers, 22 RBIs and a .417 on-base percentage this winter. He had 12 stolen bases and walked 28 times.
"It was very beneficial. I'm glad I went. I got to work on some things that I wanted to work on," said Roberts, who usually stops playing after the Arizona Fall League season.
"There's more to play for over there. You know that you have to put up numbers or you'll be home in two weeks. I had two roommates who got sent home. You can't just relax. It's more relaxing than the regular season, but you're playing for something, too."
Roberts concentrated on refining the tools needed to succeed as a leadoff hitter and also on improving his production from the right side of the plate. He batted .348 (8-for-23) as the Orioles' leadoff hitter last season, but those opportunities were confined to six games. Roberts hit .202 (20-for-99) in 24 games while batting second.
His main objective this spring is to make the team and let manager Mike Hargrove decide his role. He'd prefer starting at second base ahead of incumbent Jerry Hairston, who led the Orioles with a .291 average and .355 on-base average after the break and enters camp as the favorite, but Roberts wouldn't balk at a utility job.
"I'd like to do either one," said Roberts, 25, a supplemental pick in the 1999 draft out of South Carolina. "One of the reasons I went down [to Puerto Rico] was to prove I really didn't need any more time [in the minors].
"I felt like I was ready. So if I can be the best guy to help the team as a utility guy, fine, and if they give me a chance to compete for the second base job, even better."
He'll be competing against one of his closest friends on the team.
"Jerry and I talk about it all the time," he said. "It's not awkward to us anymore. It's just part of the business. We both feel we can play in the big leagues every day. We just have to take it as it comes."
Hargrove on contract
Hargrove enters this season in the final year of his contract, so he's bound to face questions about his future all spring, and he faced some more yesterday, his first day at camp.
This time, Hargrove stressed that he'd like to address his contract situation soon.
"I don't dwell on it," Hargrove said. "I usually think about it when you guys [reporters] ask me about it. I'd rather do it [an extension] sooner than later, but I also know I've got a job to do, and if I concentrate on my job, that will take care of itself.
"If I had my druthers, I'd rather do it right now, but I also understand not doing it right now."
In Hargrove's first three years with the Orioles, he worked under former vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. This offseason, the Orioles replaced Thrift with Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie.
Yesterday, Hargrove met with Flanagan, Beattie and the coaching staff from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the group spent most of that meeting familiarizing themselves with the new players who will be in camp this year.
"These guys are good," Hargrove said of Beattie and Flanagan. "We just came out of a meeting that we held all day long, and it was as productive of a meeting as I've been in a long time."
Chris Richard missed the first four months of last season rehabbing his left shoulder, and when he returned, he was limited in the field because he was still having trouble throwing.
But Richard regained most of the strength in his shoulder over the offseason and should come into camp ready to play the outfield again. Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson, who lives near Richard in Tampa, spent the offseason working out with him, and recently they were playing catch from 225 feet.
"He's throwing great," Johnson said.