Everybody here tries to remember the last time the Baltimore Orioles had a spring training camp like this -- so hectic, so competitive, so flush with new faces and especially young faces. But nobody can.
Maybe there's never been one. Not even in 1977 when fellows like Eddie Murray, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Rick Dempsey, Rich Dauer, Dennis and Tippy Martinez all came to the same camp together for the first time.
Overlooked at first in the excitement here about the arrival of free agents Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase has been another influx of migrating Birds -- the fledgling ones.
Spring training is always about easy questions and hard answers. But that's doubly true for the Orioles. It's easy to see the team has a generational dilemma; the old are leaving slowly, the young are coming fast and every spring decision appears difficult.
How quickly are the times changing for the Orioles? Team insiders would be surprised, but not shocked, if by July the Baltimore lineup not only included Lynn and Lacy but also Mike Young, Larry Sheets, Al Pardo and Fritz Connally as everyday regulars, with Ken Dixon in the starting pitching rotation.
True, the Orioles got rid of Jim Palmer, Al Bumbry, Ken Singleton and Bennie Ayala (all over 35) in 1984. Nevertheless, by midseason, Baltimore could still have 11 players who are 33 or older: John Lowenstein (38), Lacy (36), Dempsey (35), Jim Dwyer (35) and Tippy Martinez (35), plus six 33-year-olds -- Lynn, Dan Ford, Flanagan, Dauer, Wayne Gross and Joe Nolan.
That's a pretty old team.
Fortunately for the Orioles, the teams' farm system, which has gotten critical reviews in recent years, appears to have produced some prospects of quality, if not quantity. Go to the Mets' camp here in Florida and you'll see 22 pitchers on the roster, none older than 30. Baltimore doesn't have depth like that. But, if the right players pan out, who needs it?
The Orioles' current prospects fall into three categories: near certainty, cautious optimism and long shot.
Four players are the core of the new wave: Young, Sheets and Pardo, all switch hitters, and right-handed starter Dixon. It will be a surprise if any of them fails to have a long Oriole career.
Young proved himself last year with 17 homers. But will he be good or very good? Young hit only .195 with eight RBI in 118 right-handed at-bats last year. The Orioles could easily platoon him with Ford or Gary Roenicke, but, at the moment, they'd rather gamble the 25-year-old can be a full-timer.
Sheets made almost as big a splash during the team's Japanese tour in November as Young did during the season, hitting .400 with four homers. At 25, Sheets has proved he can hit at every level, including .302 at Rochester. He weighs 220 pounds, hit a 430-foot homer against the Yankees with his first spring swing and is already a favorite of owner Edward Bennett Williams.
He should probably be the team's lefty DH until he plays himself out of the job. Like Young, Sheets has to prove he can hit southpaws; Roenicke seems an ideal fourth outfielder and righty DH.
The two players who have arrived in a hurry here are Pardo and Connally.
At 22, the strapping Pardo has plenty of time to polish his defense and eventually replace Dempsey, who had arm miseries in '84. However, Pardo's arm is so good, his 6-foot-2, 195-pound physique so ideal and the promise of his .275, 75-RBI bat so alluring that the Orioles may be tempted to force-feed him. "Great body, switch-hitter, power, packing a rifle, pretty good behind the plate, learns fast . . . " said coach Terry Crowley, a former Dempsey roommate. "The Demper could have pressure for his job sooner than he thinks."
Whether Dixon plays a prominent pitching role depends on Dennis Martinez. If the Nicaraguan continues to have a powerful spring, showing his '81-82 form, then the muscular Dixon will go to AAA to work in turn and see if he can match his spectacular '84 Charlotte stats: 16-8, 20 complete games in 29 starts, 210 strikeouts in 240 innings.
In the next group come 31-year-old pitcher Nate Snell, DH Jim Traber (.351 at Charlotte) and third baseman Connally; none is a blue chip talent, but one of them might prove a surprise. Finally, put pitchers Bill Swaggerty, Don Welchel, Mark Brown and Joe Kucharski in the final bunch; all were once hot properties but, now, the Orioles would smile if one blossomed.
Of all these, the shocker so far has been the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Connally. He moves and swings like Cal Ripken, Jr., has hit the ball almost every time up and seems to have more range than Gross. But he can't run a lick.
"We look like a better club with him standing at third," says one veteran Oriole. "Hope he gets a good chance."
Acquired for minor leaguer Victor Rodriguez in an obscure winter deal with San Diego, Connally, 26, has won the fielding title in four of the five leagues where he's played. His .310 average with 16 homers and 75 RBI last year for Las Vegas was, if anything, an off year for him offensively. He can't approach Todd Cruz's defense nor draw walks and hit homers like Gross.
But he might do some of everything. And make Manager Joe Altobelli lose sleep come final-cut time.
"I've never seen so much talent in our camp, not even when we went to the Series," says Lowenstein, who has a bone spur in his heel but won't even consider surgery because he knows he'd be stampeded out of a job by the kids.
"This team might take nine outfielders north," says Roenicke.
More likely, Baltimore would like to offer a couple of those older pickets (take one from Column A and one from Column B), plus a AAA pitcher, for a second baseman.
That's right. Dauer's stock is still not high here. Sure, he's come to camp in the best shape of his life and he's vowed to outhit his old USC buddy Lynn. But the Orioles simply have too many talent surpluses to carry Dauer's various limitations.
The feeling here is that a day may well come, perhaps in July, when Ripken and Murray will be the only names in the Oriole lineup still there from Opening Day of '84.
However, said Altobelli, "There are a lot of problems that make a manager lose sleep. But too much talent isn't one of 'em."