Baltimore Orioles Manager Joe Altobelli was interviewed by Washington Post staff writer Michael Trilling last week at spring training camp in Miami. The Orioles open their 1985 American League season Monday at home against Texas. Here are excerpts of the interview.
Q: What is the difference in this year's team leadership, considering you've lost Jim Palmer, Al Bumbry, Ken Singleton?
A: I think you expect your leadership to come from your manager and coaches. As far as players on the field, there's none finer than the first baseman, Eddie Murray, and, of course, Cal Ripken Jr. That is the backbone of this ballclub. But as far as the difference between this year's team and last year's team, it's a tough question to answer because we haven't played any games in our league. We did lose five people through releases last year, if you count Palmer in the middle of the year and of course the four we lost -- Singleton, Bumbry, (Benny) Ayala and (Tom) Underwood, but we've kind of replenished that with Freddy Lynn, Lee Lacy and Don Aase, so it remains to be seen.
Q: You have a number of new players. How do you evaluate your starting team?
A: Well, I think Baltimore's had that fine pitching throughout the years, which does two things for you. One, it allows you to get by with fewer runs, and we kind of bolster our defense. But the big key for us will be how well our pitchers do and our run production. I think our pitching is okay, but the run production is the important thing. A year ago, we fell 100 runs below the run production of 1983. We have to get that bolstered, we have to start driving in and scoring some runs.
Q: How do you evaluate your pitching staff, which has lost Mike Flanagan to injury? What do you expect from rookie Ken Dixon?
A: Well, right now our starters aren't bad. You don't like to lose a guy like Flanagan simply because he's a premier type left-hander. He not only is capable of winning 15 or 20 ball games, but he's also capable of holding a speed club, a running team, down because of his excellent move to first base. But I think we have ample replacements until we get Flanagan back, by July. Dennis Martinez has done a good job, he can pick up that fourth spot; Dixon has done a remarkable job this spring, and he could possibly pitch fourth or fifth. We kind of feel that Storm Davis, Mike Boddicker, Scott McGregor and either Martinez or Dixon is not bad for starters.
Q: You've got Don Aase as an addition to your relief corps; he's coming off a season where he didn't see much action, recovering from an arm injury. How has he looked this spring, are you happy with his progress and what is his role with Tippy Martinez and Sammy Stewart? Will this make Stewart a middle relief pitcher again?
A: We do have the semblance of a fine bullpen. I think the big thing is that I don't want to call Sammy the long man simply because if Aase pitches, then all of a sudden the next day you might have Sammy do short work. We have a pretty good bullpen.
Aase has done well so far, he's gonna do just fine.
Q: What is rookie Larry Sheets' situation now that Lee Lacy has been hurt?
A: We're only gonna lose him (Lacy) maybe five weeks. But what it does it gives a young ballplayer, maybe like a Larry Sheets, a chance to play even more and we can see what he'll be able to do for us. The big key with a young player is that you always want to get him some playing time because there's no sense in keeping him if you're just gonna use him off the bench and he's only gonna pinch hit, then maybe bat two or three times a week; I don't think that's enough. I think with the injury (to Lacy), Sheets can go out in right field. He could also be used as a designated hitter against right-handed pitching.
Q: Fritz Connally, how do you see using him? A couple of years ago, the Orioles tried rookie Leo Hernandez at third base, gave him a lot of playing time. Then he didn't work out and eventually ended up back in the minors. Might this be the same situation with Connally?
A: Hernandez played 42 straight ball games for us in '83 and he went back; it could possibly happen again. It's just that Fritz Connally gives us a little added power. Our run production was down, as I mentioned, a year ago from the '83 season so I think what we're after is enhancing our run production. And Fritz Connally, if he can hit a few home runs and drive in some runs against left-handed pitching, we'll be better off.
Q: You have the addition of Fred Lynn. Are there any other things that you can do to improve your run production?
A: Well, there's not much you can do except let 'em go out there and play and hopefully platoon at a few spots, which will enable you to use more people during the course of the season, and also try to work at getting the three-run homer, that big, mighty three-run homer from some guys with power like a Fritz Connally has and like a Larry Sheets has. I think the more hitters and the more guys with power you can throw into your lineup, the more apt you are to score more runs per game or per season.
Q: The addition to your coaching staff of Frank Robinson and (batting instructor) Terry Crowley -- does that give you more flexibility?
A: Terry's been around these guys and played with half of the guys on our ball club. I think he's sort of going to have a time where he can sit down with a bunch of guys. And Frank's a Hall of Famer right now. Did most of his great play here in Baltimore. I don't think he can do anything but enhance our chances to win.
Q: Your thoughts on the American League race. Toronto has improved its relief pitching, New York has Rickey Henderson. Are the Detroit Tigers the team to beat?
A: I've always felt the same way about the American League East, and that's there's going to be at least five teams in the last month of the season still having a shot at winning the division title. It's a very, very good division and there's a lot of good ballplayers in it. We won it once in '83. We had a terrible year last year and still won 85 ball games. So I don't really feel that we're out of anything. I think we'll be right there come the last month of the season.
Q: Have you had a chance to see some younger kids in the Orioles organization that might help later in the season?
A: We're trying to set ourselves up as far as protection in case somebody goes down with an injury, with someone playing at AAA to fill in. There's no doubt that that's what you try to do. I did see some good-looking youngsters. They may be a year away, they may be two years away, but there were some good-looking youngsters in our camp this year.
Q: Anyone specifically?
A: Well, I like a boy by the name of Ken Gerhart (outfielder). Then there was Jimmy Traber (first baseman), just to mention a couple. (John) Hoover, a pitcher who looks very, very good. And we also have a young man by the name of John Habyan (pitcher) who might be a couple years away but nonetheless looks pretty good in our camp.