SARASOTA, FLA. — Last September, Jeff Conine slipped into Baltimore and attended a game at Oriole Park, where he once played on star-studded veteran teams that featured Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Harold Baines, as well as fan favorites Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina, B.J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick.
The memories flowed, and Conine — who had been out of baseball for a couple of years — got on the phone a few weeks later to see if there was an opportunity to come back on a regular basis without having to buy season tickets.
“I talked to [executive vice president/general manager] Mike Elias at the end of last season,” he said Tuesday. “Just wanted to know if there were any opportunities with the Orioles. I’m looking to get back into the game of baseball. That’s what I know. I’m a baseball player.”
When he got a call in January inviting him to work as a guest instructor at spring training — along with former Orioles Bordick, J.J. Hardy, Ben McDonald, Scott McGregor and Brian Roberts — he jumped at the chance to be reunited with the team and with Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who he knew well from the days when both were with the then-Florida Marlins.
The two are birds of a feather — tough guys who care deeply about baseball and the young men who play it. Conine liked the way Hyde went about his business as a coach. Hyde was impressed with Conine’s wide-ranging experience and no-nonsense attitude toward the game.
“Niner brings so much," Hyde said. “He’s played multiple positions. He’s played on a World Series team. He has played in different organizations. He’s had such a wonderful career that he brings a ton of experience. Just a tough player … a player that everybody respected around the league.”
Conine hearkened back to the way Hyde interacted with young players while he was a coach in the Marlins organization and said the Orioles made a perfect choice when the club hired him to oversee the rebuilding program at the dugout level.
“I knew him really well with the Marlins and had seen him in action," Conine said. “Talked to him a lot about the game. Knew that a rebuild situation with a lot of young players would be a perfect fit for him because he’s just that kind of guy. High energy. He gets it, especially in the clubhouse.
“People a lot of times don’t subscribe to the chemistry in the clubhouse argument and I think it’s a huge thing, and so does he, so I think he’s going to build a nice culture here.”
In a game that has become obsessed with analytics, Conine will be the first to admit he’s “a ’90s player,” but he’s not a dinosaur. He knows the heavy emphasis on highly sophisticated analysis of player tendencies is here to stay. He just believes there’s still a place for eyes-on scouting and interpersonal evaluation.
“I think it’s going to pull back a little bit," he said. “I think a lot of organizations went all in on the analytics and that’s the one thing they relied on. But I still believe in the human element and evaluating personalities which a lot of analytics, they don’t tell you anything about the guy. They tell you what he’s good at on the field.
“I think for me, and I think Brandon Hyde subscribes to this too, is that you want that human element, especially evaluating what it’s going to be like in the clubhouse. I think we’re going to have a nice blend of both analytics and scouting coming up soon that is going to bring that chemistry and that character back into it a little bit more than an analytic will show you.”
Conine spent some time Tuesday huddling with the young outfielders, but he is equally qualified to help out with the infield instruction.
“I played basically half my career on the infield and half in the outfield," he said. “Baseball is all about information. Young players need information to assess their game and get better. I’m just here to relay any knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”
Conine played for six teams over 17 major league seasons and compiled a solid .285 career batting average. The Orioles acquired him from the Kansas City Royals at the start of the 1999 season and he stuck around through most of 2003, twice driving in 90-plus runs.
He had his best season in an O’s uniform in 2001, when he batted .311 with 14 homers and 97 RBIs. He was traded away in August of 2003, but returned as a free agent and spent most of the 2006 season in Baltimore.
Maybe this role as a guest instructor will lead to something more in the future. For now, Conine just wanted a week to see how things go, but he made no secret of the nostalgia that bubbles up inside him when he thinks of his bygone days in an Orioles uniform.
“I really enjoyed all my time in Baltimore," he said. “Those days, getting to play with Cal and Brady and Mike and BRob [Brian Roberts] and all those guys. It was a fun time for me. We had great teams and a great atmosphere at Camden Yards. Whenever anyone asks me my favorite place I’ve ever played, I say Camden Yards. It’s my favorite.
“Baseball was my life forever and I’m glad to be here with the O’s. They’ve given me a little opportunity to get back in uniform. And I can still fit into one, which is good.”