"I think Cal Ripken's a great ballplayer and has a bright future, but I didn't go through everything I did in the last few months to come back and lose my job . . . as much as some people would like that to happen."
Doug DeCinces, Baltimore Orioles
The first day the Baltimore Orioles returned from the baseball strike, a dozen players accidentally congregated around third base during batting practice in Memorial Stadium.
Suddenly, a player by the cage said loudly, "They must be holding tryouts for Doug's job already!"
At times DeCinces' hold on his third base position with the Orioles seems so tenuous that he might as well have a daily lease with inning-by-inning options.
"I just can't give Earl (Manager Earl Weaver) the chance to take me out of the lineup," says DeCinces.
This evening, DeCinces played the kind of game that shows why some believe the Oriole hot corner need not be in any better hands than his.
His two-run, bases-loaded single off Rich Gale in the first inning was the game-winning hit in the Orioles' 2-1 victory over Kansas City before a crowd of 13,780.
DeCinces also made a memorable defensive play in the ninth to help reliever Tim Stoddard save Mike Flanagan's eighth victory as the Orioles won their third game out of four from the defending AL champions.
Even one of DeCinces' ground outs, a vicious one-hop smash, bruised the right thumb of the Royals' George Brett so badly that the MVP was taken to the hospital for X-rays (negative). It's uncertain how long Brett, who was zero for 15 in Baltimore before singling in the sixth, will be out. It is certain, however, that in the eighth inning, with two on and one out, it was not Brett but his modest replacement Jamie Quirk, who faced Stoddard and obligingly grounded into a double play.
Such an evening would make most players cheerful. For DeCinces, it only meant that the creases of worry on his forehead could be relaxed for a couple of days.
Few players have taken the field in the primes of their careers with the bizarre sense that everybody -- including, perhaps, many of their fans and teammates -- want them to lose their job.
Nobody has found third base to be more of a hot corner than DeCinces.
First, he had to replace a Baltimore legend: Brooks Robinson.
Now, the most highly touted, can't-miss prospect in baseball, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound, 20-year-old Ripken, is sitting on the bench waiting for a chance to take away DeCinces' job.
"When I came up, everybody rooted for the old guy to hang on," says DeCinces. "Now, everybody is rooting for the young phenom to take over. I understand. Maybe it's natural. But what about me? I realize that's just the way it is and I have to deal with it the best I can.
"But ask me if it's fair and I'll tell you, 'No.'
"I get downgraded for defense and this and that. Hell, somebody showed me a stat today that said over the last four years I had the most total chances and the best fielding average of any third baseman . . . I've averaged 20 homers a year for the last four years. But I feel like everybody wants to see me go."
On top of all this, DeCinces was, perhaps, the most conspicuous spokesman for the players' union during the game's 50-day strike. He is the American League player representative. That hardly was a job designed to win friends from a public always quick to judge him.
In fairness, it should be noted that after the eight-day strike in 1971, Oriole player rep Brooks Robinson was booed here for six weeks. After an eight-week strike, DeCinces has heard only a very few boos. The times have changed.
Nonetheless, reports abound that DeCinces either will lose his starting job, be moved to the outfield or be traded before the start of the next season.
Most annoying of all, DeCinces has one of the most painful and recurrent injuries of any player: a bad back that has put him in traction three times.
"Sometimes I play pretty good, and sometimes I play pretty bad," said DeCinces, who has an excellent 30 RBI in 178 at bats, despite a .228 average. "But I always play hard."
DeCinces was the only Bird not in a party mood after this win.
"They outscored us by seven runs in four games (16-9), but we won three of the four games," Mark Belanger said with a snicker. "How'd we do that?"
By winning all three one-run games -- 3-2, 4-3 and 2-1 -- while losing, 10-0.
"It don't seem real fair," said K.C. Manager Jim Frey.
The Birds now have gotten four in a row good-to-excellent pitching starts from Dennis Martinez, Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor and Flanagan, who have allowed just six earned runs in 242/3 innings of the second season.
"I was amazed," said Flanagan (8-4), who worked 52/3 shutout innings. "I had all four pitches working perfectly. Until I got tired (after 75 pitches), I haven't been sharper all year."
Equally uplifting has been the 111/3 innings of shutout relief work from Sammy Stewart, Tippy Martinez (five outs tonight) and Stoddard (back-to-back saves). Stoddard not only got Quirk to hit into that double play in the eighth after Darryl Motley doubled, Duke Wathan singled in a run and U.L. Washington's single had knocked out Martinez, but Stoddard also showed his grit in the ninth.
After DeCinces had robbed Amos Otis with a diving stop to his left and made a from-the-knees throw to first for the second out, Stoddard walked Willie Aikens and gave up a hit to Frank White. But Stoddard buzzed a fast ball strike, then a succession of nasty sliders, and rookie Motley ended the game with a befuddled, off-balance strikeout.