- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. There were times last season when Tony Batista would hear his name over the PA system as the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman, only to be greeted with a smattering of boos.
Not that fans booed Batista because of who he was. They did it because of who he wasn't: Cal Ripken.
"I don't think they booed me because I'm not a good player," said Batista, who occasionally subbed for Ripken during the Iron Man's farewell tour. "They just wanted to see the star of the team. They wanted to see Cal."
During a season of frustrations, nothing could have been more frustrating than being the last guy anyone in the crowd wanted to see on the field. Batista could go 4-for-4 with two homers and five RBI, or make a spectacular defensive play, and it still wouldn't satisfy people who came to the ballpark solely to watch Ripken play one last time.
"It wasn't anything against Tony," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "You could put Madonna out there and they'd have booed."
Nobody, though, may have been better equipped to handle the abuse than Batista, one of the most even-tempered and unassuming major leaguers you'll find. The reaction of the fans, particularly on the road, had no effect on him.
It was Batista's calm demeanor that convinced Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift to scoop Batista off the waiver wire last June. Batista's offensive history including the 41 home runs he hit with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000 didn't hurt, either.
"I just knew, based on everything I knew about him prior to that, that we should claim him," said Thrift, who merely had to pay the Blue Jays the $20,000 waiver fee, along with picking up the remainder of Batista's four-year contract, to bring the third baseman to Baltimore. "I made calls to Jim Fregosi, who was his manager [in 2000]. And Jim said five other teams had called him asking about the same person. He said to me that he's the best person, the best human being that he's ever managed. Everybody said we've got to get this guy."
Thus, the Orioles had their replacement for a legend. Batista is to Ripken what Doug DeCinces was to Brooks Robinson. Now if he can only get back his swing from the 2000 season …
Clubs don't generally release players less than a year removed from a 41-homer season, but former Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash didn't like what he saw in Batista during the first half of last season. Ash also was looking to trim payroll, so when Batista entered the final week of June batting a scant .207 despite respectable totals of home runs (13) and RBI (45), the GM placed his regular third baseman on waivers.
Batista's fortunes changed quickly after he joined the Orioles on June 25. In his second game, Batista had three hits (including a two-run homer). In his final 28 games, he batted .303 as a designated hitter, third baseman and shortstop.
Through it all, the 6-foot, 200-pound power hitter has used one of the most unconventional batting stances in the game. He faces the pitcher instead of a side of home plate. When he swings, he lunges back into the plate, which gives him the power to crush almost any inside pitch to deep left field.
Pitchers took notice of the unorthodox stance and began keeping the ball away from Batista. So far there has been no attempt to get him to change his stance, aside from a few minor alterations.
"The years he's had offensively with that stance says that he can have that stance and be successful," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Now whether you've got a conventional stance or a slightly unconventional one like he does, you still have to make adjustments because pitchers are making adjustments. So, yes, I think he can be successful with that stance. But he can't be, as anybody can't be, so stubborn in their approach that they don't make adjustments."
If Batista can make those small adjustments and regain his power stroke of old, this quiet 28-year-old may change the attitude of a few Baltimore fans. They may never forget Ripken, but they may find time to cheer for the new guy in town.
"This year they'll probably clap their hands," Batista said. "I'm going to make them clap their hands."
Notes
Hargrove acknowledged yesterday that he and Thrift have contemplated acquiring a veteran reliever who could handle the job of closer while somebody among the Orioles' stable of young power pitchers grows into the role.
"It's something that would be advantageous to have, but I don't think it's the end-all deal either," Hargrove said. "Having a good veteran closer would make it easier on our young arms. But having said that, I don't think it's essential. I'm not going to lose my sleep if we don't get it."
The Orioles likely will enter the season with something of a closer-by-committee situation involving Willis Roberts, Buddy Groom, Jorge Julio and Kris Foster. …
The Orioles will begin playing squad games Monday. They face the Montreal Expos at Fort Lauderdale in their exhibition opener Thursday night.



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