Sunday, February 17, 2008

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Grimy and sweaty after working two hours under a clear, sunny sky, Ramon Hernandez stuffed his catcher’s gear into an oversized bag and headed toward the Baltimore Orioles’ clubhouse.

He dropped the satchel at his locker, grabbed a sports drink and headed out the door to a makeshift gym at the end of the parking lot. There, Hernandez completed his workout with a lengthy weightlifting session.

Then he flashed a wide smile, one that was rarely seen last year during the most frustrating season of his major league career.

After hitting .276 with 23 home runs and 91 RBI in 2006, Hernandez began last season on the disabled list with a strained rib cage muscle. He returned on April 26, but was forced to endure another stint on the DL in June after suffering a bruised groin at Seattle.

Hernandez was batting .238 on Sept. 11 before rallying to close at .258. His nine homers and 62 RBI were his lowest totals in those categories since 2002.

At the end of the season, Orioles manager Dave Trembley ordered Hernandez to drop some weight and arrive at spring training camp in better shape. He was wasting his breath, because the 31-year-old catcher had already decided to initiate a rigorous conditioning program to tone up and slim down during the offseason.

“It was about pride,” Hernandez said. “You have to work out because I got hurt last year a lot. I want to have a great season, so this year I arrived in the best shape I can.”

Hernandez was listed at 235 pounds last year. Now he weighs 225, and much of it is muscle. Beneath his trademark smile is a toned body that shows how badly he wants to excel this season.

“With all those injuries last year, he was never the Ramon Hernandez that I know. It affected him behind the plate, it affected his hitting,” Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. “But now he’s in the best shape I’ve seen him since he’s been an Oriole. He’s expecting a big year and so am I. Besides all that, he’s got a friendly smile and is a happy guy, the kind of guy you want to be around. When he’s not banged up, he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the game.”

And when he’s hurting, Hernandez is downright miserable. When he considers his 2007 season, the only positive is that he got through it.

“It was a bad year. I was hurt, always there was something painful on a different part of my body. I had to fight through it, and it was uncomfortable playing like that,” he said. “But I finished the season, and now I come in and hopefully I will play all year long.”

His offseason workouts consisted of weightlifting and cardio exercises that turned fat into muscle. He also was careful about what he ate and supplemented his diet with plenty of vitamins. No catcher can play 162 games, but Hernandez intends to far surpass the 106 he logged in 2007.

He should have a bigger role with the team, too. Manager Dave Trembley wants Hernandez to work diligently with new pitching coach Rick Kranitz and the pitching staff to make sure the starters and relievers know what pitch to throw in every imaginable situation.

“We’re going to give him a big share of responsibility running that pitching staff, and I know the relationship and the rapport that he’s going to have with Rick Kranitz is going to be a very good one,” Trembley said. “We’re going to ask him to really be the guy that takes charge and do a lot more than he did last year as far as running the game. I’d like him to be the kind of player he’s capable of being.”

Step One is complete. Hernandez is in baseball shape, completely healthy and eager to get another season started.

“He expects to have a big season and we expect that, too,” Trembley said. “He lived up to his part of the bargain. I asked him to come in shape and he has. Just from the first few days that he’s been here, he’s got a little more bounce in his step. I think he understands that this is a big season with him.”

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