Oft-uprooted Darensbourg, Bottalico, Byrdak, Brower seek home in O's bullpen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- They are the ultimate itinerants, talented enough to have earned big league work into their 30s but always two bad months away from looking for another job.

In your average spring training camp, there will be four or five of them competing for one spot, maybe two.

Their travelogues are often the most striking aspects of their resumes.

They are middle relievers.

In the Orioles' camp this year, there's Todd Williams, who finally has a near-guaranteed job after 15 years of drifting. And there's Winston Abreu, who has pitched professionally for 12 years without reaching the majors. In between those poles are Jim Brower, Vic Darensbourg, Ricky Bottalico and Tim Byrdak.

All four have posted good seasons in the big leagues. None is sure to have a job in Baltimore come April 3.

They all sound rather Zen after years of trying to focus on pitching amid the swirl of wives, babies, arm surgeries and near-annual relocations.

"It's always just play and don't think about anything else," said Darensbourg, a diminutive left-hander who has pitched for five major league and five minor league teams in the past three years.

"Your middle relievers are probably going to be veteran guys who can handle any situation and aren't gonna [fade] in the late innings," said fellow lefty Byrdak, who stands a good chance to make the club after pitching ably last season.

"I mean, it's not just me," said Bottalico, a former closer turned nomad. "A good percentage of these guys go from team to team every year. We're the parts they're most willing to change."

Brower learned that after he pitched himself ragged, throwing in 89 games for the San Francisco Giants two years ago, only to be released by the club a few months into the 2005 season.

"I threw my heart out and I almost threw my arm out," Brower said. "That's the hard part, where you feel expendable. And I didn't think I was."

Of the four, only Brower made more than $1 million last year, and his $1.16 million contract was less than half the major league average of about $2.5 million.

Manager Sam Perlozzo crystallized the game's unsentimental view of these drifters. Of having so many in camp, Perlozzo said, "It's only important if they're good enough to pitch for us."

Apostle of calm

Brower was done throwing on a recent morning, but he sat on a metal bench beside an auxiliary field, watching starter Bruce Chen mix off-speed pitches.

"That's the best combination in all of sports," he said to a few younger players seated beside him. "A curveball to a changeup."

Brower, 33, has pitched in 14 cities during his 11-year career, but at least he has stayed in the majors almost nonstop since 2001.

He came up as a starter with the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds but after the Cincinnati coaches realized he could pitch three or four days in a row without tiring, a reliever was born.

As Chen left the mound and new teammates plopped beside Brower, he continued.

"Good swinging yesterday," he told third baseman Fernando Tatis, who's trying to revive a once-promising career. "The way you went to right field, real nice."

Then, he and long reliever John Halama shared Barry Bonds stories. "You can make your pitch, and he won't just get a hit, he'll beat you," said Brower, who played with Bonds for 2 1/2 seasons.

"The most relaxed person wins," Brower told infielder Howie Clark.

Last year, Brower experienced a quintessential middle reliever season. He started with a secure job with the Giants but a bad month ended his 2 1/2 -year tenure in San Francisco. Then, he caught on with the Atlanta Braves and ended up pitching 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs.

Brower expected Braves officials to offer him arbitration. He waited and waited, but Atlanta cut him loose. He had to find a job on short notice. So he looked to Baltimore, where the Braves' pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, had relocated.

"You never know how it gets to the point where you're fighting for a spot," Brower said.

Brower now has to sell himself to a manager who hasn't seen him pitch much, since he has toiled mostly in the National League. He figures it can't hurt that he has started, pitched in long relief and worked the eighth inning.

"I'll keep pitching," he said, "until I get tired of talking myself up or my wife gets tired of the lifestyle."

Little lefty

Darensbourg never thought of himself as much more than a specialist, destined to trick left-handed hitters in the late innings.

What else would anyone expect of a 5-foot-10, 170-pound pitcher who doesn't impress the radar gun?

Darensbourg, 35, opened his career with an unusual degree of job security. He broke camp with the Florida Marlins in 1998 and struck out 74 batters in 71 innings. His fastball reached the low 90s then and he mixed in a slider.

He never matched his rookie success but held on for an additional four years in Florida. Since the Marlins released him, however, he has pitched in 10 cities - Colorado Springs, Colo.; Denver; Edmonton, Alberta; Montreal; Norfolk, Va.; Chicago; New York; Charlotte, N.C.; Toledo, Ohio; and Detroit for those counting miles - in three years.

He posted a 2.82 ERA for Detroit last season, but the Tigers released him anyway - typical luck for a middle reliever.

This spring, he's experimenting with a sidearm delivery, and that slider has slowed to a curve.

"I'll try anything to get a little more movement on the ball," he said.

In the offseason, Darensbourg produces beats for underground hip-hop recordings. He considers it a hobby for now but would like to work in music when the baseball invitations stop coming. Desi Relaford, also invited to camp as a nonroster player, has a record company. "We've talked about working together sometime," Darensbourg said.

When asked whether he's comfortable in yet another strange clubhouse, Darensbourg said: "Sure. I've played with a lot of these guys. ... I'm old."

He was almost out

Byrdak once left a mound in Gary, Ind., thinking he had pitched professionally for the final time. It didn't feel that bad, actually.

"I knew I did everything I could to get back," he said.

Byrdak, 32, went 11-5 as a minor league starter in the Kansas City Royals' system in 1995. But after an elbow examination, the club asked him to become a reliever to reduce stress on his arm. He was happy to do it.

"It's just one of those things where no matter what the capacity, you're happy to have a job," he said.

How could he have known he had jumped on a carousel that wouldn't stop spinning for nine years?

A few rough major league stints and elbow problems later, he was giving his career a last shot in the independent Northern League. He knew that if he didn't get a call from the majors that 2003-2004 offseason, he couldn't afford to give a baseball another year of his life.

But just when he thought he was out, the San Diego Padres pulled him back in with an offer to pitch in Triple-A. They released him, but the Orioles picked him up and he surfaced unexpectedly as the team's left-handed specialist last season.

After pitching in 13 cities in 12 years, Byrdak said it's awfully nice to return to the same team for a second season.

"Oh, God, yeah," he said. "There are a lot of familiar faces and the staff knows you, knows what you can do. It's definitely a comfortable feeling."

Byrdak already teaches pitching to kids in the offseason, and he envisions doing more of that in retirement. But having edged so close to the end before, he'll pitch as long as he can.

Ex-standout hangs on

Unlike his fellow middies, Bottalico, 36, does not have to look back to college or the minors to remember being a star.

Ten years ago, he tore through the National League as a fireballing closer for the Philadelphia Phillies.

"When I first came up," Bottalico said, "it was just fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball."

But injuries did what opposing batters couldn't. First Bottalico had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Then, he pitched with a torn labrum for more than two seasons. "I went until I completely blew it out," he said.

Shoulder reconstruction followed and the great fastball was gone, never to return.

Surgery invited the worst kinds of doubts.

"You wonder, 'Am I even going to be able to throw a ball again?'" he said. But gradually, his arm felt fresher and "everything came back into perspective."

Bottalico has pitched with six teams in seven years since his Philadelphia heyday. He has no illusions about returning to stardom. He's a journeyman, always searching for the next burst of good innings that might mean a steady job.

Bottalico thought he might be back after an excellent 2004 season with the New York Mets. But they cut him loose anyway. He thought he was going well last year with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"But I basically had a bad two-week stint, and that was it," he said.

Bottalico maintains a home base in Connecticut. He said his wife and daughters, ages 2 and 5, are used to the uncertainty. The girls don't know any other way.

He's probably an underdog in his battle for a spot in the Orioles' bullpen. He knows that but can't obsess on it. "I don't know," he said. "I'm just here to [work hard]."

So, when is the next stop one too many?

"I don't know about quitting," he said. "Sometimes you get to the point where you say, 'I don't know if I want to go through this again and take the chance.'"

He has some ideas about post-baseball life. He'd like to do sports radio, something he has tried during minor league rehabilitation stints.

But he hasn't seriously contemplated retirement. "I just keep pushing," Bottalico said, " 'til they won't let me push no more."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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