Millwood a leader by example

The first time the group of Orioles pitchers piled onto Doctor Doom's Fearfall at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park, Chris Tillman wouldn't go.

Tillman, 21, the youngest member of the quintet at the Orlando amusement park that day in early March, is terrified of thrill rides.

Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brad Bergesen and Brian Matusz experienced the 150-foot, heart-in-shoes free fall, and then made a pact to tell Tillman it was mild, a little fib among teammates.

The peer pressure began as they left the ride. It worked when Millwood, the 13-year major league veteran and Tuesday's Opening Day starter, approached Tillman.

"I'd say: 'No. I'm not going.' And he would put his arm around me and say, 'Let's go,' " Tillman said. "Aw, man. You definitely can't say no to him, but I was scared to death."

Tillman survived the drop -- though his buddies didn't reveal the ride's intensity until after he was strapped in -- and continued to get pressured into the male-bonding ritual. Tillman heard it from all four, but it was Millwood, especially, who "shamed me into going on all those rides."

Death-defying plunges aside, this is what the Orioles were hoping for when they traded Chris Ray to the Texas Rangers in December for Millwood, 35. The Orioles coveted a veteran who could pitch atop the rotation, who has handled success and failure, who could set the right example and offer advice and encouragement when needed. Millwood has filled that role in the past.

"He was a tremendous help to me just in the way he went about his work," said Carl Willis, who was the Cleveland Indians' pitching coach in 2005 when Millwood led the American League in ERA. "We had so many guys so young, and he just led by example. He'll be a good fit in Baltimore."

The term "veteran leader" might be the biggest cliche in all of baseball. When it comes to motivation, desire and performance, baseball players are on their own islands. It's a team game, yes, but the ability to succeed has to come from within. Millwood can't throw the ball for the other pitchers; he needs to do his job and hope a relationship develops.

"I feel like the better I perform, the easier it is to be a leader and the more guys listen and the more they take to heart what you have to say," Millwood said. "As far as being called the staff leader, if that is going to take the pressure off the other guys, I am all for it."

So far this spring, the young starters have watched closely.

"He goes about his business the right way and does the drills 100 percent," said Bergesen, 24. "And I think in just those little things, you can pick up a lot from him."

It's no coincidence that Millwood's spring training locker was situated precisely in the middle of the Orioles' future rotation. It made him even more accessible -- at least once the others felt comfortable.

"When I first saw him, he seemed like an intimidating kind of person," Hernandez said. "He's got that deep voice. ... But he's actually cool, laid-back, easy to talk to."

Millwood is a big man -- 6 feet 4, 235 pounds -- who speaks in a low bass punctuated by a slow Southern drawl. In his first teleconference with the Baltimore media, he offered abbreviated answers in a tone that sounded sleepy, irritated or both.

"He's not a talkative guy, so when he says something it's going to have more impact. He doesn't talk to be talking," said Leo Mazzone, Millwood's first big league pitching coach in Atlanta. "You never know Kevin is around. He's unassuming in a great way."

Mazzone remembers when Millwood first came to the big leagues as a 22-year-old in July 1997. He joined a group that is perhaps the greatest five-man rotation in baseball history: Likely Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine and Arundel High alum Denny Neagle, who won 20 games that year.

Yet Millwood, an 11th-round draft pick from small-town Bessemer City, North Carolina, where his high school graduating class had just 150 students, never seemed overwhelmed.

"A lot of guys had trouble handling that, they were intimidated. But not Millwood," said Mazzone, who also coached the Orioles' pitchers and now hosts an Atlanta sports talk show and a Braves pre-game show. "He came in and joined the fray. He jumped right in and relished it." Millwood knew immediately what kind of opportunity he was receiving in 1997. As his agent, Scott Boras, says, "Kevin learned at the knee of the great Greg Maddux, and he is better for it."

Said Millwood: "From Maddux, I learned more the mental part of pitching, reading hitters, stuff like that. And [from] Smoltz, more the physical part of it and how to throw pitches and things of that sort. I learned a lot from Glavine, too, and the other guys just watching the way they went about their business."

Millwood became one of Mazzone's favorite pupils because he meshed an on-field competitiveness and work ethic with an easygoing persona.

"He is a big, old teddy bear off the field," Mazzone said. "In between the white lines, he is nasty bear."

That duality is something that struck Orioles manager Dave Trembley about Millwood.

"We can all be nice, but you don't ever misrepresent kindness for weakness," Trembley said. "I think Millwood would knock you on your [butt] in a heartbeat in a game. He'll be nice to you, but he'll knock you on your [butt] and still talk to you about it."

Millwood's off-field accomplishments include a litany of altruistic endeavors, including the building of a youth baseball complex in Texas. He has already talked to Orioles community relations officials about potential projects in Baltimore; he would like to work with Maryland's vast number of military-service personnel.

Ultimately, though, Millwood wasn't brought in because he was a nice guy. The Orioles acquired him because he has won 155 games in his career, the fifth-highest total for an active pitcher, and because he has made 30 or more starts in eight seasons. On Tuesday, he'll be making his seventh Opening Day start and first with the Orioles.

Whether he finishes the season in Baltimore is unclear. He is a free agent at year's end, and he doesn't fit into the team's long-term plans. So it might be a brief marriage -- perhaps ending with a deadline trade in July if he is pitching well and the Orioles are out of contention -- but it could be a satisfying relationship for both sides.

"I definitely don't want this to be the end of the road, by any means. I'd still like to pitch past this season, and this year has a lot to do with that I think. So in that regard, it is a really important year," Millwood said.

"But to me it's more important to come in here and try to do what they want me to do. On some levels, that's maybe to mentor and help these guys grow a little bit. But, on the other hand, it's also to come in here and win ballgames. If nothing else, I owe it to them to at least give everything I've got."

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