- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2001

In the waning days of spring training, Mike Hargrove was asked whose offensive production was critical to the Baltimore Orioles' level of success this season, and the manager mentioned a couple of names.
Jeff Conine was not one of them.
A 34-year-old player with no natural position and a hefty $3 million salary, Conine had done an admirable job filling in gaps over the last two years at third base, first base or the outfield. But he certainly didn't seem to figure in the Orioles' grand plan for a sustained youth movement and consequently was the subject of numerous trade rumors.
"I thought there was a possibility, sure," Conine said. "The way the positions were falling into place and the personnel that we had, I felt it was a possibility that I might not fit into the plans. Or somebody might be able to fill my role and be a lot cheaper than I would be."
When no one came calling with the right offer, Conine opened the season as a role player. He managed to squeeze his way into the starting lineup 20 times in the team's first 41 games, posting a respectable .273 batting average with 17 RBI.
Then, with the Orioles' offense in a season-long funk, Conine began to see his name on Hargrove's daily lineup card more frequently. He batted cleanup May 18 against the Minnesota Twins, has remained there since and doesn't figure to yield his place anytime soon.
"I don't want to sit here and say he's going to play every day," Hargrove said, "but he's as regular as our regulars are."
Why the sudden switch from bench player to everyday cleanup hitter? A .426 batting average, 16 RBI, nine extra-base hits and .685 slugging percentage over the last 14 games certainly helps.
Now, as Baltimore begins to wrap up a nine-game road trip with tonight's series opener against the New York Yankees, Conine the guy who was prime trade bait two months ago has become the key component in the Orioles' lineup. His 33 RBI easily lead the team and are the same number of runs he had driven in as of Aug. 1 last season.
"It's a function of getting more at-bats, it's a function of feeling good, it's a function of good focus with men in scoring position," said Conine, who is batting a team-high .336 with six home runs. "It's kind of a combination of all sorts of things."
Whereas Hargrove once used the right-handed hitter sporadically off the bench, the manager now goes out of his way to find a place in his lineup for Conine's hot bat. One day he's at first base, giving David Segui a chance to DH. The next, he's at third, filling in for the 40-year-old Cal Ripken. Five times he has served as designated hitter. Twice he's started in left field, where he spent most of his first seven major league seasons (with Kansas City and Florida). Twice he's manned right field.
"It was difficult at first," Conine said of his ever-changing place in the field. "When I first came here, that was basically the role I was put into: Wherever we need you is where you're going to be that night. And up until that point, I had pretty much been set at one position. So it took me a little while to get used to it. But now I kind of enjoy coming in to see what number's next to my name [on the lineup card]."
Said Hargrove: "He's a professional, and I mean that in a good sense. Jeff's very professional about what he does. He understands his role, and he fits very well."
Conine always has wielded a good bat. He was a two-time All-Star with the Marlins, winning the game's MVP Award in 1995. He averaged 25 home runs and 100 RBI in '95 and '96 and won a World Series with Florida the following year.
But he doesn't recall ever feeling as good as he has over the last couple of weeks. He's coming off a 7-for-14 weekend performance at Oakland and was swinging the bat so well that even his outs were hard hit. He easily could have finished the weekend 11-for-14.
"In '99, I had a two-month stretch where I was hitting the ball really well, but you can't get much better than the way I'm feeling right now," Conine said. "I'm comfortable, and I feel like I can do anything when I'm up there."
And if he continues to force the Orioles to find a regular place for him in the lineup, all the better.
"It's a good issue to be forced because it means I'm helping the team," Conine said. "I'm a baseball player. I want to be in that lineup every day."

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