FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The show begins when a pinch runner is sent into the game. That's when Jeff Conine, normally possessing a wit so dry it could use a splash of vermouth, suddenly transforms himself from Orioles first baseman to comedic actor.
Conine limps toward the Orioles' dugout with a grimace that suggests he's in tremendous pain. He waves off the trainer, ignoring how nobody is rushing to his aid. On some days, his batting helmet is slammed to the ground for effect.
As actors go, Conine is more Pauly Shore than Paul Newman, but he's fooled enough people this spring to keep himself amused and an entire team loose.
The easiest way to get Conine to smile is by pointing out his latest victim. Friends have contacted his wife, Cindy, to check on his condition. Reporters have gathered at his locker to inquire about his health, only to find out they've taken the bait.
"He's a character," said Jay Gibbons. "He's just a fun guy to be around."
However, Conine isn't here for comic relief. The Orioles need him to provide more than laughs. They need runs.
As the cleanup hitter, much of that responsibility falls upon him. It's enough weight to make anyone walk unevenly.
"You can't ask for anything else, starting and hitting in the middle of the lineup. That's where a run producer wants to be," Conine said.
"I'm glad [manager Mike Hargrove] has the confidence in me to put me there. Obviously, if something were to happen during camp and we got a big bat, I'd be knocked out of that spot, and I've got no problem with that. A true No. 4 hitter is a guy who's going to hit 40 home runs, a big bopper in the middle of the lineup that everybody's afraid of."
Conine never has had more than 26 homers in a season. His highest total with the Orioles is 15. But on a club that's stalled in its efforts to acquire a power hitter, Conine is the best fit for the fourth slot in the order.
"We'll play with what we've got," he said, "and try to make the best of it."
That's pretty much been Conine's history with the Orioles, a tenure that began in 1999 when former general manager Frank Wren outfoxed the Kansas City Royals by offering minor-league pitcher Chris Fussell. The Orioles have been stuck in fourth place every season, their rosters either loaded with high-priced veterans or spliced with Triple-A caliber players being rushed to the majors. The only element that hasn't changed is the club's position in the standings.
Gone are veterans such as Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle, Mike Mussina, Will Clark and Delino DeShields. Conine has been reunited with B.J. Surhoff, whose locker is beside his at one corner of the clubhouse, but he also glances farther down the row and finds Jerry Hairston, Gary Matthews and Gibbons. He sees hope.
"It's a big difference from then to now. It's huge," Conine said. "We have an influx of young talent that's coming up. You didn't see that when we first got here. We were an aging team. There were a lot of quality players, but they were older and there were a lot of injuries."
Though no official vote is taken, it's clear Conine is the leader on this team, in part because only pitcher Sidney Ponson has been in the organization for more consecutive years. He won't tear into an unsuspecting player for making a mental mistake, instead pointing out the blunder in a tactful manner and perhaps reminding the offender of the spring-training drill designed to prevent it.
Because of the way he continues to play, it's easy to get people to listen. Going into today's exhibition game in Jupiter, Fla., Conine is batting .377 and tied for the team lead with four home runs.
"He assumed a leadership role last year after Cal and everybody were gone. And it's even more so this year," Hargrove said. "Jeff does it very subtly. He's not a rah-rah, scream-and-holler kind of guy. It's a word here and a word there."
Said Gibbons: "I consider him like the godfather of the team. He's a quiet leader. If you have a problem, he's the guy you really want to talk to. When he says something, you know he means it and you listen. He jokes around a lot, but then he gets serious."
Conine's expectations for the Orioles continue to fluctuate. He was confident of their chances of winning when he left the Royals, but braced for a losing season in 2002. His outlook has taken another turn upward.
"You've got to be a realist," he said. "Look who's in your division. The Yankees and Red Sox are stacked every year. They're going to be tough to beat for one of those spots. Even if you're going to win the wild card, you have to finish second.
"Do I think we have a chance of doing that? Yes. Did I think we had a chance last year? No. I think we're improved enough to be able to give them a run for their money. But there are so many variables in a baseball season that have to play out. For us to be able to do that, we'll have to play perfect baseball. We don't have guys in the middle of the lineup who can win a game with one swing. We have to produce runs. If we don't do that, we're not going to be able to contend."
The last time Conine was on a contender, the Florida Marlins won the 1997 World Series. He's 36 now, with a contract that runs through next season and includes an option for 2005. He wants to stay with the Orioles, even if it means limping to the finish again and never having another chance at postseason glory.
"I got to play in a World Series. You look at how many players never get to do that," he said.
"I don't think it's unfortunate that I'm not going back. I still have a job to do, helping this team win. I'd just love to be able to do that here, to make the playoffs with this team. Just getting in the playoffs is an incredible experience. To be there at Camden Yards, with those fans, would be even more special than most."
The 2002 stats for the projected No. 4 hitters in the American League East:
Player, tm ................... Avg. ............. HR ....... RBI
C. Delgado, Tor ....... .277 ............... 33 ....... 108
M. Ramirez, Bos ........ .349 ............... 33 ....... 107
B. Williams, NYY ....... .333 ............... 19 ........ 102
Travis Lee, TB* ......... .265 ................ 13 ......... 70
Jeff Conine, O's ........ .273 ............... 15 ......... 63
* - with Philadelphia in 2002