In the mind games played by a manager named Earl Weaver, every game is the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Every game is going 11 innings and every game requires 213 moves.
Outfielders play the infield, infielders catch and pitchers steal bases. "Say it's the 26th inning and . . . ," is the way about two dozen Weaver sentences have begun this spring.
Once upon a time, this was the time of year when players worked to make bellies flat, arms strong and suntans dark.
For these Baltimore Orioles in this spring of 1986, spring training is a time to experiment for the game that may never be. For instance:
*To look at designated hitter Larry Sheets as a catcher.
*To look at outfielder Juan Beniquez as a third baseman.
*To look at outfielder John Shelby as a second baseman.
*To see how many infield positions newcomers Rex Hudler and Jackie Gutierrez can play.
*To see if right fielder Lee Lacy can be the designated hitter.
"We may never need any of these moves," Weaver said, "but if you're down to the last move or two in a game, you like to have it."
When the exhibition games begin Saturday at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., against the New York Yankees, Weaver will begin sorting out which moves are reasonable. Of the early experiments, the most interesting involve Beniquez and Sheets, because each could help at a problem position.
Beniquez, who was signed as a free agent to be a right-handed pinch hitter, DH and utility outfielder, played shortstop in the minors, but was switched to center field by the Boston Red Sox in 1974, his first full season in the majors.
He has taken ground balls at third base for four straight days, and while he is not Brooks Robinson, he is not Wayne Gross, either. He has a natural, fluid motion, soft hands and a decent arm.
He also turns 36 in May, and with only a one-year contract in his pocket, is not picky about where he plays.
"I played third a week [three games] for the Yankees in 1979," he said. "That's the last time, but I can do it. The toughest thing is that you get balls hit harder at you than any place else on the field.
"I'm having to concentrate on getting in front of the ball. The other thing is learning the pickoff plays and things. It's not my best position, but I just want to play."
The Orioles have toyed with moving Sheets behind the plate for a couple of years, but the experiment hasn't worked because Sheets doesn't move very well, has knees that swell after a couple days of catching and prefers the outfield.
"I told him we were going to let him be the judge of how much he caught," Weaver said. "What we'd like him to do is catch batting practice every third day or so. I'm not going to let him do anything that would be a detriment to his big league career, though."
The Sheets experiment would be dropped if the Orioles can trade for another catcher, which they are trying to do, or if nonroster rookie John Stefero makes the team.
"But if we keep only two catchers, we're going to be in a position where we need to pinch-hit or run for a guy late in the game," Weaver said. "Knowing Sheets could do it allows you a lot of freedom. He seems to be in a good frame of mind about it."
When Sheets arrived at camp two weeks ago, he approached a reporter: "Am I a catcher again?"
"Yes," he was told.
"If we're going to go through that again, okay," he said. "But I feel I'm more valuable as a utility man. I'd like to play the outfield as much as possible, and I think that's where I'm the most valuable. I don't mind DH-ing because hitting is the most exciting thing I'm doing.
"He Weaver said he was going to give me a chance to hit against left-handed pitchers this spring, and that's what I really want to do."
The third big experiment involves Shelby, who actually played second base for an inning at Yankee Stadium last summer and went to instructional league last fall to play it some more. He doesn't have the instinctive movements of a Lou Whitaker, but he does have natural athletic ability, the same ability that makes him a good defensive outfielder.
"I think he has played it enough now that he is intrigued by the possibilities," General Manager Hank Peters said. "I know we're intrigued."
"I don't mind it," Shelby said. "I don't even think it's that hard. I never felt uncomfortable there, not even when I was in that game at New York. I just have to practice at it. I took a lot of ground balls at Rochester before I was called up, so it wasn't that big of a change."
The other moves are much less risky. Lacy will turn 37 the first week of the season and realizes he'll have to DH some this summer, anyway.
Hudler and Gutierrez are infielders by trade and already have taken ground balls at several positions this spring without any trouble.
"A manager can make moves only if he still has them to make," Weaver said. "Right now, you want to go out and find out how many different things guys can do."
Orioles officials say they expect no announcement from American League President Bobby Brown on the Gutierrez-for-Sammy Stewart trade. Privately, they believe Brown will uphold the trade, then if Gutierrez has any more problems this summer, he will order the Boston Red Sox to give up another player. . . . Although no trade talks are hot, the Orioles still are interested in acquiring a third catcher to go with Rick Dempsey and Floyd Rayford. The team they're most likely to do business with is the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to pry away starter Tony Pena.