- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. The Baltimore Orioles took a step toward building an identity in the post-Cal Ripken era yesterday by signing their reigning MVP to a two-year contract extension.
Jeff Conine agreed to a deal worth $9.25million that will kick in once his current contract expires at the end of this season. With a club option for 2005 also included, Conine, 35, could finish his career with the Orioles.
"I've cherished my time in Baltimore the last three years," said Conine, who was acquired in 1999 from the Kansas City Royals for pitcher Chris Fussell. "The facility, the fans, the organization, it was a no-brainer to be a part of."
The versatile veteran enjoyed one the best seasons of his 10-year career in 2001, leading the Orioles with a .311 batting average, 97 RBI and 75 runs scored while starting at five positions (first base, third base, left field, right field and designated hitter). His performance earned him a near-unanimous selection by local writers and broadcasters as team MVP, a distinction that had previously carried an unpleasant connotation.
The last four team MVPs (Randy Myers, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and Delino DeShields) all were traded, released or left as free agents within one year of winning the award. Conine, who in November had his $3.5million option for this season picked up, appears to be bucking the trend.
"In any building, you have to have a foundation," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "You have to have a Jeff Conine, that type of model player who has the experience and can produce. You take that away, the house crumbles and falls."
The Orioles might have crumbled last season without Conine in their daily lineup. Even so they finished with 98 losses. After key players David Segui, Mike Bordick, Jay Gibbons and Chris Richard went down with injuries, Conine became the focal point of the Baltimore offense, batting cleanup for 108 consecutive games.
His versatility in the field, not to mention his clubhouse presence, made him the Orioles' most coveted player at the trading deadline, but Thrift refused to deal him.
"Without him it would be a lot more difficult to accomplish what we're trying to accomplish," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Players with the talent and character that Jeff Conine has, they don't grow on trees. He's very valuable to us on the field, obviously, but off the field also."
Conine will be a mainstay once again in the Baltimore lineup this season, likely batting cleanup behind Segui and ahead of Gibbons. Where he plays in the field may be a day-to-day matter.
"I had a ball last year, coming to the locker room and not really knowing what [position] number's going to be next to my name," he said. "I'm prepared for anything. If it so happens that I'm locked into one position, that's fine. I feel confident I can do a great job at any one of those five positions."
Former Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who is battling brain cancer, will throw out the first ball on Opening Day at Camden Yards. Oates began his playing career in Baltimore in 1970, then coached the team before serving as manager from 1991 to '94. He went on to manage the Texas Rangers but quit in the middle of last season. He found out in October that he had a stage four brain tumor. His prognosis is unclear. …
Outfielder Luis Matos underwent successful surgery this week to remove the broken hamate bone in his left hand. Thrift said no cartilage damage was found and that Matos is scheduled to resume baseball activities in six weeks. His return to the playing field is uncertain. …
Left-hander John Parrish also underwent successful surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Parrish, who had been a long shot to make the Baltimore roster, likely won't pitch this season. … Results from an MRI taken Thursday on left-hander John Bale showed no damage to his arm, and Bale should resume throwing shortly. …
Scott Erickson gave up three runs in 6⅔ innings yesterday and Conine celebrated his contract extension with an RBI double in the Orioles' 4-3 exhibition victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

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