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The thrill is not gone

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Players started arriving in the cramped clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium before 8 a.m. yesterday, walking briskly to their lockers while nodding at unfamiliar faces.

A couple of hours later, after the hugs and handshakes and thorough physicals had commenced, Orioles pitchers and catchers emerged from the dugout to a smattering of applause and officially began preparations for the 2008 season. At a time in the sport when optimism reigns, the Orioles will train for the next six weeks here amid low expectations. The Orioles are firmly immersed in a rebuilding process focused on youth and development, making wins this season and the next a secondary concern to organizational progress.

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"It would be a pleasant surprise if we were able to win as many or more games as we were able to win last year," said starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who was one of the few bright spots from last year's 69-93 team. "But I think everybody is more prepared for what may come and understanding and accepting of whether we win or lose a little bit more."

For a couple of hours yesterday under a bright Florida sky, Orioles spread over three different fields, stretching, warming up their arms by playing catch and then engaging in the same fielding drills that are being done in spring training camps throughout Florida and Arizona.

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It has been a difficult offseason for baseball in general and the organization in particular. Former Sen. George Mitchell released his long-awaited report in December, alleging rampant steroid use in the sport. Roger Clemens, one of the generation's best pitchers and the biggest name in the report, again denied at Wednesday's congressional hearings that he has used steroids.

Meanwhile, Andy MacPhail, Orioles president of baseball operations, spent the offseason executing his rebuilding plan by trading away the team's best pitcher (Erik Bedard) and its most accomplished hitter (Miguel Tejada). But all that was an afterthought yesterday in an Orioles clubhouse that looked more like a scene from a college orientation with the number of introductions that were going on.

Catcher Matt Wieters, the team's first-round draft pick last June and one of the centerpieces of its rebuilding project, was eager for his first opportunity to shine at major league camp. Pitcher Hayden Penn, who is coming off two injury-hampered seasons after emerging as one of the organization's top prospects, was simply excited to be getting another chance.

And then there were veteran relievers Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford, who maintain they are just as excited to begin this season no matter how many baseball pundits are predicting the Orioles will finish last in the American League East.

Walker drove from his home in Kansas to Florida, a three-day trip that gave Walker, who pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the World Series 16 months ago, plenty of time to consider what lies ahead.

"You think a lot when you're driving, and the main thing is, we have to have the right attitude," said Walker, 36. "I'm excited. I didn't sleep at all the last two nights. I'm ready for this. ... Whether we're rebuilding or not, I signed a three-year deal here and I made a commitment as a Baltimore Oriole. I don't look at it as rebuilding. I look at it as we got younger."

Walker called the offseason trades of Bedard and Tejada "tough but probably necessary."

Ryan Belden, a 20-year-old student at Florida Atlantic University who became an Orioles fan after he served as one of their spring clubhouse attendants in 2005, agreed with Walker's assessment.

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One of the about 40 people to attend yesterday's free workout, Belden said he trusted the front office to do the necessary things to break the organization's streak of 10 straight losing seasons.

MacPhail, the architect of the rebuilding project, looked on from beyond the fence yesterday when the Orioles took the field. "The concern that I have is they play in the AL East," said Belden. "It's just going to be tough, but I have trust in the [front office]. We've seen the Indians rise up, the Marlins rise up. There's always that chance."

Belden and his friend Shariff Khowessa spent the afternoon watching practice and getting autographs from several Orioles. Asked why he came, Khowessa, a New York Mets fan, said: "I've always liked baseball, and they're in our backyard. I wanted to see their new team, and the weather is beautiful. Why not come?"

For Orioles manager Dave Trembley, a baseball lifer who worked years to have a team that he could call his own, the day went perfectly. "The enthusiasm of players and staff was what I expected," he said. "It looked like guys were paying attention to detail and having fun. That's what I want. This is spring training."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com


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