On the second day of spring training, Mark Belanger was slipping stealthily by his manager's office when there came a bellow from within.
Conditioned by 16 years in the majors, the last 14 under the tyrannical thumb of Earl Weaver in Baltimore, Belanger assumed the worst. He skulked into Tommy Lasorda's office to see what he'd done wrong.
"Tommy said, 'Don't you even bother to say hello?'
"I told him, 'I never did for 16 years.'
"He said, 'Around here we do. So don't walk by my office again without stopping in to say hello.'
"That actually happened," Belanger said, shaking his head as if he needed to reassure himself. "I didn't make it up."
It's spring again and for the 20th straight year Belanger is gettin ready for a professional baseball season. The difference is that for the first time, nothing he does has anything to do with the Orioles.
The man called "Blade," whom baseball purists accept as one of the finest-fielding shortstops ever to spit in a glove, started in the Oriole farm system in 1962. He played 1,962 games in a Baltimore uniform, a total second only to that of Brooks Robinson. He won eight Gold Gloves, played in six league championship series and four Wordl Series.
But late last summer, with his batting average hovering slightly below his weight (170), he became a non-Bird, booted from the nest.
The Orioles dispatched him in a way that still puzzles Belanger, who despite his batting problems remained, he said, ready to play any bit part offered, including late-inning defensive work, pinch running or bunting.
In his last 25 games as a Bird, he never touched a bat, playing twice as a defensive replacement. Weaver maintained Belanger was injured, but the veteran shortstop says nothing was wrong with him that a trip out of the deep freeze wouldn't have cured.
In Belanger's view, it was a crass kissoff and it almost soured him for the game. He has a good job with a management firm in Baltimore, a fat pension and no delusions about playing forever. But as a 37-year-old free agent, he decided to test the waters one time.
"I had three considerations," Belanger said this week. "I wanted to be with a (pennant) contender, get what I wanted financially and to pick a club that had a real interest in me."
Along came the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers with an injury-prone shortstop (Bill Russell) to back up, a manager name Lasorda and a one-year offer said to be in the neighborhood of $250,000. Belanger signed Dec. 11 and today he says he couldn't be happier. He's out of the Bird cage, flying free.
"There has been no pressure whatsoever," Belanger said after working the final two innings of a 7-1 Grapefruit League victory over the Minnesota Twins. "Weaver makes pressure because he's so demanding. You never get, 'Nice play; nic going; nic hitting.' He expects it.
"No matter how long you play, no matter how good you are, you need a pat on the behind once in a while."
By contrast, Lasorda, with his I-love-the-world style of managing, has made pats on the behind passe, surpassed by the Dodger bear hug.
"The Orioles were a pretty loose club," said Belanger, "but this is a very, very loose club. And the difference is the difference between Weaver and Lasorda. In fact, that's the only reason.
"Ballplayers always bust their tails. The difference between Weaver and Lasorda is I bust my tail for both of them, but with Weaver it was never enough."
With the ebullient Lasorda, enough is too much. The manager was in a hurry after the Twins game, fresh out of the shower and late for a dental appointment. Assistants and coaches clustered around him, getting him dressed and whooping it up, Marx Brothers style. One combed his hair, another held his pants for him, a third lines up his shoes, a fourth was strapping on his watch.
"Belanger?" Lasorda shouted over the din. "Oh, yeah, we're just so very, very proud to have this guy with us. He's probably one of the five top shortstops ever to play the game. He's got such a great attitude, willingness to work hard. He'll help our club even when he's not on the field.
"We're really and truly honored to have him on our ballclub. And I tell you what, he's not just a great ballplayer, I think he'd make an outstanding coach and an outstanding manager."
Lasorda was still spewing superlatives as his aides whisked him out the door.
Belanger by then was out of range, off on a Dodgertown practice field taking grounder after grounder, effortlessly.
After 70 perfect retrievals, the slat-thin veteran told his infield coach, Monty Basgall, he'd had enough. "I don't think I'm gonna miss one today," said Belanger. "We might as well quit."