O's reconnecting with storied past

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- One locker in the Orioles' spring training clubhouse looks like it should be encased in glass, if only to preserve this shrine to better days and better teams.

A white jersey hangs from a hook with Mike Cuellar's last name stitched across the back. A sentimentalist will view it as the uniform top of an aging Orioles hero who could be the most important spring training invitee in Fort Lauderdale, while a cynic might regard it as a cruel reminder that Cuellar likely will be the only 20-game winner who changes clothes in that row. But no matter the perspective, he's a link to the organization's glorious past, and manager Dave Trembley wants to make sure the chain is unbroken.

He offered Cuellar the chance to work with his pitchers for a few weeks, but why stop there? B.J. Surhoff, Scott McGregor and Rick Dempsey also showed up, and they dressed for the occasion - orange practice jerseys and gray pants that the players and coaches wear each morning.

"I just felt it's important to include those people who have made it possible for all of us to have the opportunity that we now have," Trembley said. "The Orioles' tradition and history is one that's a sleeping giant to a lot of these guys who are playing now. They don't know a whole lot about it. And I wanted to have those people feel like they were included in what's going on over here."

What Trembley is trying to re-create is the norm at other camps, where retired players with championship rings or other ties to an organization and its fans slip on their uniforms again and become instructors and ambassadors. Expanded waistlines and gray or thinning hair can't ruin the image.

Maury Wills rides through Dodgertown on a bicycle. The St. Louis Cardinals bring back Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Willie McGee. The Minnesota Twins' camp includes Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Paul Molitor and Tony Oliva. The New York Yankees just swing open the doors at Cooperstown and point their Hall of Famers to their Tampa complex.

Public relations director Bill Stetka got the ball rolling for the Orioles over the winter when he compiled a list for Trembley with about 20 names and contact numbers, which were passed on to team president Andy MacPhail and owner Peter Angelos. Among the criteria were availability, willingness to put in the hours and the ability to teach.

"This is my first time doing this," said Cuellar, 70, who lives in Orlando, "and hopefully it won't be my last."

The financial reward doesn't rival what they made as players, though Cuellar came along too late for the big paydays anyway. Each individual is compensated for travel and lodging expenses and receives a per diem.

Trembley steered Cuellar toward the left-handed pitchers, asking that he critique their pickoff moves and offer suggestions.

"He showed me a couple tidbits of information that I never heard of before to help me out," Adam Loewen said. "It's always good when you get new information, and it's not the same thing every time. It's simple, but nothing I've ever heard before."

"I think Cuellar did a great job," McGregor said. "He said some things I hadn't heard. I learned from him."

Cuellar also bonded with a few of the young Latin pitchers, including Daniel Cabrera and Radhames Liz. He approached Cabrera in the clubhouse earlier this week and placed an arm around his shoulder. Cabrera flashed a rare smile and did the same, as if they were longtime friends.

"I just talk to them, about how to pitch and how to think," said Cuellar, a four-time 20-game winner who shared the 1969 American League Cy Young Award with Denny McLain. "I think it's a good idea to teach the young kids about the way baseball is supposed to be. Every kid I talked to really listened."

Even the ones who never heard of him.

"It's kind of embarrassing to say, but I didn't really know him, but I think it's impressive what he did," Garrett Olson said. "And it's definitely humbling to be around someone like that."

Dempsey, a major league catcher for 24 seasons and Most Valuable Player of the 1983 World Series, was a logical choice for Trembley and an enthusiastic participant.

"It provides a sense of security for a lot of young players who come in here and they're seeing this organization for the first time," Dempsey said. "I think it's good for them to see that the organization respects these guys who were part of the winning era. They like that family atmosphere. It's something we got away from the last couple years, and now we're starting to bring it back a little bit."

Before Trembley began pushing for more ex-Orioles to grace the fields at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, with the blessing of MacPhail, the club seemed content to resurrect its storied past in other venues.

"We currently remain connected to our former players through various programs, including fantasy camp and many OriolesREACH community initiatives," team spokesman Greg Bader said. "The invitation to several former Orioles to attend spring training in uniform provides yet another way to connect generations and represents a perfect opportunity for our current players to hear directly from several Orioles heroes."

McGregor, who recorded the last out in the '83 Series, became a valuable resource for new pitching coach Rick Kranitz.

"Dave said, 'You guys have carte blanche. Whatever you need to do,' " said McGregor, the pitching coach at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. "I tried to give Kranitz more than just a scouting report. I tried to download what I knew about our young guys."

Surhoff, who played on the '96 and '97 teams that reached the AL Championship Series, watched the pitchers throw and monitored drills involving the infielders and outfielders. Still in peak physical condition, he also served as first base coach for one game when John Shelby became ill.

"I tried to help wherever I could and not be in the way," he said. "You want to make sure you're on the same page with what Dave Trembley is trying to teach and reinforce it."

There's always room for more.

Former shortstop Mike Bordick's obligations as head baseball coach at Boys' Latin kept him away from camp. Boog Powell, the first baseman on four pennant-winning teams, is opening a barbeque joint in Ocean City but said he will gladly accept Trembley's next offer.

"I told Dave if there's anything I could say or do to help over the course of the season, just let me know," Powell said. "I think he's more interested in reestablishing the tradition. We played in four World Series on my watch. It's a [heck] of a lot more fun to do it that way."

"There's a lot of tradition here," outfielder Jay Gibbons said, "and I think people need to remember that."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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