The loveliest music in the spring, for Doug CeCinces, is the rat-a-tat-tat of ball against bat. More than any other Oriole so far, the third baseman is hanging ropes that sing in the wind. Sweeter than this, nothing is -- unless it is the silence from his back.
The next time DeCinces hears anything from there, his career may go poof.
"You're playing with reckless abandon almost," someone said to DeCinces the other day in Miami. "You're not babying your back at all."
"I'm not worring about it anymore," DeCinces said. "I've done all I can do for it. If it goes, it goes."
After 11 spring training games, DeCinces was hitting .409 with two doubles a triple and a home run. "You seen all them shots of his they've caught?" Earl Weaver said. To a fellow who said no, Weaver said, "Un-be-lievable the way Doug's killing that ball. Just like '78."
We'll get back to 1978 in a minute, but first let's stop in July of 1980, in Milwaukee, where this story more properly begins.
It begins with a pop, sort of the pop you'd hear if you blew up a paper bag and popped it.
Except this pop came from DeCinces' spine, right below the belt.
Now, your Aunt Sally does not like her body to go pop. But when an athlete's body makes strange noises, he gets really nervous. The strange noise puts him in mind of The End Never Before Foreseen. Along with DeCinces' ominous pop came pain so excruciating it sent this big, strong guy to his knees. A doctor said it was time to do surgery.
The Baltimore team doctors say DeCinces' back problem is "the degeneration of the facets of the loser lumbar spine." More simply, DeCinces says he has bones that slip out of place in his spine. When those bones move, they rub against nerves. Your Aunt Sally would faint from such pain, and so a doctor told DeCinces he could fix it with a knife and it wouldn't hurt again. The doctor would fuse vertebra together , so they couldn't slip apart.
Well, if there is anything athletes dislike more than strange sounds, it is knives carving on their bodies. DeCinces declined the doctor's advice.
"The club said, 'See if you can hold out through the Yankee series, because we need you,'" DeCinces said. Eight games with the Yankees would come up in the month after his Milwaukee attack.
Two weeks after the Yankee games, DeCinces' back went pop again.
"That time," he said, "I had spasms and the popping, and I couldn't do anything. I could't sleep, I couldn't lay down, I couldn't stand up. It was awful."
By then, of course, the Orioles were in pitched battle with the Steinbrener Mercenaries. So DeCinces, the third baseman, couldn't let a mere case of crippling pain keep him away from the ballpark.
Under pennant pressure, DeCinces, a .237 hitter when his back went kerplooey the second time, hit .287 his last 34 games.
Forgiveness was his had he been an immobile liability at third base. But over the last 115 games, he made only 11 errors (after kicking eight in his first 27, perfect-back games). He led the league's third basemen in chances and double plays, and tied in assists.
After the season, here came that doctor again.
Again, DeCinces said no to surgery. "Surgery is an athlete's worst enemy," he said. "Tell me about Phil Chenier." Chenier, once an all-star for the Bullets, vanished after two back operations. At 30, in only his seventh big league season, DeCinces doesn't want to think about The End. "I just know what I can do when I'm healthy, and I dedicated myself this last winter to getting healthy -- without surgery."
What a healthy DeCinces can do is what he did in late 1978, the golden year of Weaver's memory. In the last 85 games that season, DeCinces hit 21 home runs and drove in 67 runs on a .321 average. The next spring, he tore up a back muscle in April and never again has been strong.
Until, he says, this year.
"I probably have better overall body strength than I ever have," he said. "That's because I was really dedicated this last winter. At the end of the season, the doctors told me to have the fusion or try rehabilitation one more time. The doctor said if I do the rehabilitation and it pops out again, then there is no more decision. Surgery.
"So with that in mind, I was quite dedicated."
At the Baltimore Colts' camp, DeCinces worked to build up the back muscles whose job it is to keep vertebra in place. Instead of subjecting his body to the pounding of his customary offseason long distance running, DeCinces worked on a stationary bicycle. Hanging from an iron bar, he pulled his knees against his chest. At first he worked 1 1/2 hours every other day; as spring training neared, he worked every day.
"My statistical goals this season are just to get the best numbers I can every day," DeCinces said. "My goal is just to be healthy. If I'm healthy during the whole year, I might surprise a lot of people. You can look at the stats and see when I've healthy. Earl can.
"The greatest thing that could happen to me would be to be healthy all year and be in the World Series and win it."
But if the back goes pop, then what?
"I'm satisfied that by my work all winter I've given myself one last opportunity," he said. "And who knows? It may work."