A new leader in O's 'pen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Relievers' row at Fort Lauderdale Stadium exploded with howls when LaTroy Hawkins made the statement.

Left-handed pitcher Eric DuBose nearly fell off his stool while screaming, "Can I get an 'Amen' from the back row? Hallelujah."

Hawkins laughed at the reaction, but he hadn't been joking when he said he had no problem taking charge in the Orioles' revamped bullpen.

"I'm a born leader, player," Hawkins said. "I'm a born leader."

Hawkins, the 33-year-old right-hander whom the Orioles acquired from the San Francisco Giants in December for disgruntled lefty Steve Kline, gives the club a much-needed veteran to set up inexperienced closer Chris Ray.

Entering his 12th major league season, Hawkins believes he can help guide a staff that - at least for now - includes just one pitcher (Kris Benson) with more than six years of big league service time.

"That's the thing. I can lead, set a good example," Hawkins said. "I am easy to talk to. Whatever [younger pitchers] want to talk about, I am pretty sure I have done it and seen it. I've got some good friends who have done it and seen it and I've heard about it, on and off the field."

There's really not a baseball label the lanky, 6-foot-5 Hawkins hasn't worn, including top prospect, struggling starter, dominating setup man and failed closer.

Now, he may be adding "quality veteran" to the mix.

"I think that just by his experience and what he has done in the game, he'll be a natural leader down in the bullpen," said club vice president Jim Duquette. "He has those abilities. He is a quality guy. Our feeling is just his presence down there will help stabilize things. And whatever he provides off the field, from a leadership standpoint, will be extra."

Possessing a high-90s fastball and supreme confidence, Hawkins made his major league debut - against the Orioles, in fact - as a 22-year-old for the Minnesota Twins in 1995. He had 98 starts in parts of five seasons with the Twins, but never posted an ERA under 5.25. So he was converted to a reliever before the 2000 season.

That's when his big league philosophy took hold, courtesy of some family advice.

"My grandfather told me you've got to learn how to adapt to your situation and your environment," Hawkins said. "The quicker you learn how to do that, the better off you will be."

The past year has been peppered with disappointment and adjustment for Hawkins, who entered last spring as the Chicago Cubs' closer. He blew four of eight saves (after converting 25 of 34 in 2004 for Chicago), and was constantly booed by fans at Wrigley Field before being traded to the Giants in late May.

In July, an elbow-ligament irritation forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his career.

"It was tough. I had never been traded during the season, but it goes with the territory," Hawkins said. "I had never been on the DL and I went to the DL. But you've got to keep fighting and move on. The other teams aren't going to feel sorry for me."

In one sense, Hawkins is a perfect fit for the Orioles. Like his new club, Hawkins wants to forget about a disastrous 2005 and start fresh. In fact, that's what manager Sam Perlozzo told the team when he addressed it for the first time on Wednesday.

Hawkins reiterated the sentiment yesterday.

"That's all in the past. I don't like to talk about that anymore," Hawkins said of last season. "That's what the man said yesterday. What happened last year is in the past."

Looking into the future, Perlozzo says Hawkins will be a key member of the bullpen.

"We got a lot of good reports on LaTroy," Perlozzo said. "I hear he gets righties and lefties out. That's key for us late in the ballgame, where you don't have to keep matching up all the time, keeping your [bullpen] fresher."

Hawkins won't be competing with Ray, 24, for the closer's job, but Perlozzo said the veteran could fill in if Ray is unavailable.

And Hawkins, the self-proclaimed born leader, said that a lower-profile role is fine with him.

"I don't care about setting up for a 24-year-old," Hawkins said, chuckling. "I'll try to help him win the Rolaids Relief Award so he can buy us some Rolexes."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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