No player is looking forward to the baseball season more than the Orioles' Doug DeCinces, who hopes the sort of notice he attracts with his bat and glove equals what surely will come with his mind and mouth.
DeCinces will be the American League player representative during negotiations over a new Basic Agreement with the owners later this year, and that is odd, for he seems too healthy and too talented for the job.
Not that he is unqualified to publicly serve the pitches Marvin Miller calls privately. Nor too timid to stand his ground against strong-willed men who already have surrendered more money and freedom to players than anyone dared imagine a decade ago.
But most athletic labor leaders have been older and more marginal than DeCinces, who has escaped the shadow of an immortal and seems ready for star status. Only a few players have known the tepid-to-torrid season he experienced last year.
The slide began when his wife was hospitalized shortly after they arrived for spring training. Then DeCinces tried to field the first ground ball of camp and ended in the same hospital with a broken nose.
Then he was switched from third to second base, and for the first 57 games seemed capable of playing himself out of the major leagues. The numerical pits came June 30, when he was batting.226 with 13 RBI in 190 at-bats and 12 errors.
"I couldn't have gone any lower," he said. "It was either go up or go away to nothing. I came to grips with some problems mentally and also changed my stroke at the plate, so I was more loose and relaxed.
"And all of a sudden everything started to fall in place."
In the final 85 games, DeCinces drove in 67 runs, hit 21 homers and 27 doubles, batted.321 for 321 atbats and had a.607 slugging percentage. At third base again, he made only one error in his last 72 games and none in his last 28.
"I also have a 21-game hitting streak going," he said, "so I'm trying to pace myself not to be ready before April 6 (when the Orioles open their season at home against the White Sox).
"I don't want to be ready the week before and then hit a two-week lull, like happens sometimes."
At 28, DeCinces is comfortable and assured at third -- and the longer the time frame from when he replaced Brooks Robinson in mid-July of 1976 the more he realizes the enormity of it all.
"I handn't recognized how bad it had been until long afterward," he said, "how it had affected me as a player and as a person. I'd become overburdened with it, changing things and doing things that weren't me.
"Once again, I had to say to myself: 'Wait a second. You're Doug DeCinces, not Brooks Robinson, and you got to Baltimore on your own ability, not what made somebody else great.'"
Ironically, on Brooks Robinson Day, Sept. 18, 1977, DeCinces felt the Robinson shadow pass.
"It was against the Red Sox -- and they scored two runs, in part because I just missed a George Scott shot down the line. And I started to hear the repercussions. Then I get up to the plate and hit a three-run homer that puts us ahead.
"As I was rounding the bases, I could feel all the pressure lifting off my shoulders. It was the right time, the right setting. It's what the game is all about. The problems last year had nothing to do with Brooks.
"But I do know this. Anyone who goes through something like that (replacing a Robinson) doesn't forget what the important things in life are."
On his late-season tear last year, DeCinces ripped pitchers regardless of reputation. Ron Guidry surrendered 13 homers all last season. Two of them were to DeCinces, including a two-run blow that won a game Aug. 4 in Yankee Stadium and still is recalled fondly for its force.
"I knew it was hard, on a line," he said. "I saw it going for the 430 sign and just put down my head and ran. Then I looked up again and saw the ball coming off the bullpen wall. I said: 'Did that get there in the air?'"
DeCinces became the AL player representative when Bill Lee was traded from the Red Sox to the Expos. Already, he has been fielding questions about what sort of break-throughs the players plan to top the free-agent bonanza they now enjoy.
"We're not looking for any aggressive moves, although just 27 percent of the gross income for teams goes for player salaries," he said. "There are certain costs -- and the pension -- that have to be brought up to date -- and this should be done from the added money the owners get through television."
The owners are screaming for a system of compensation for free agents, similar to what is not working -- or at least not working to the players' advantage -- in the National Football League.
"We are not," DeCinces said firmly, "going to step backward."