Finally, the Baltimore Orioles' roster squeeze has landed in an unexpected place.
At Larry Sheets' locker.
"I don't know what to think," Sheets said this afternoon before the Orioles' 5-0 victory over the New York Yankees.
Here's what he should think. For two weeks, his spring training slump has been the talk of the clubhouse. Manager Earl Weaver told him, "It's a good thing you came here with this club made because you haven't done much."
A couple of teammates said the same thing, and when reporters finally noticed his .167 batting average, Sheets wrote this above his locker: "I'm not worried" and "Don't worry about me."
Today, he can start worrying because circumstances and the 24-man roster may squeeze him back to Rochester, five months after he finished a 17-home run, 50-RBI rookie season.
The situation is this: The Orioles have decided to keep a 10th pitcher, Dennis Martinez, who has a $500,000 guaranteed contract and is on the trading block.
They are also leaning toward keeping two full-time catchers, Rick Dempsey and John Stefero. The other situation is that Sheets, a fill-in catcher as well as outfielder, has lost the DH job to Juan Beniquez (.289) and Jim Dwyer (.371).
He may be able to avoid going to Rochester for the first week if third baseman Floyd Rayford (bone chips in left thumb) is placed on the disabled list for five games, which is the move the Orioles appear to be leaning toward. Rayford is not going to do any work until Saturday when he is going to play some light catch.
If he has a miraculous recovery, the Orioles would have to make one more move -- and signs point to Sheets being the movee.
If Rayford spends the first week (or more) on the disabled list, Sheets would stay at least until he comes off. If the Orioles are absolutely committed to the 24-man roster, not 25 -- and right now General Manager Hank Peters says they are -- Sheets would be the most likely candidate for the International League.
Further, keeping both Stefero and Dempsey would allow Rayford to be a full-time third baseman and allow Weaver more late-inning flexibility.
Weaver won't make public comments about Sheets except to say, "I have to go with the guys who are hitting." And even Stefero is hitting (.333).
Sheets has not taken the developments well. He was visibly shaken today. For, in an earlier meeting, Weaver had told him he had the team made, and in the winter, Sheets and wife Sharon bought a home in Baltimore (Sharon is expecting their first child).
"I've had a bad spring," Sheets said. "So what? Monday (opening day) is a new day. If I get a hit my first at bat, I'm hitting a thousand. If I don't, at least I'm not three for 50."
This spring's slump is the first blip in what had been a magic tour that began in September 1984, when he hit .438 in eight games. He followed that by hitting .400 on the Orioles' 1984 tour of Japan and .262 during the 1985 regular season.
"You have to understand how much he digested last season," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "He'd had one full season at Class AAA, and it was a big jump."
Sheets made an amazing jump. His 17 homers ranked him third among major league rookies, with only Oddibe McDowell of the Texas Rangers (18) and Glenn Davis of the Houston Astros (20) hitting more.
Weaver has sent him a half-dozen or so messages this spring, all basically the same: relax. He has relaxed, but he hasn't hit, getting no extra-base hits in 60 at bats.
"I don't feel that bad," Sheets said, "but it has been tough."
As an afterthought, he added, "Earl's been fair to me. He could have been on me a lot more with the way I've hit down here."
Storm Davis and Tippy Martinez combined on a three-hitter this afternoon, and the Baltimore pitching staff finished with 35 straight scoreless innings against the Yankees . . . Davis finishes the spring with a 2-3 record and 3.86 ERA . . .
In the last 10 appearances by Orioles starters (two turns each), they have a 2.29 ERA, and Weaver said, "It all fell into place pretty good. Now, it's got to stay there." . . . Shortstop Cal Ripken hit two more home runs, giving him three in two days . . .
The Baltimore Board of Estimates has approved a one-year extension of the Orioles' Memorial Stadium contract, with the city agreeing to pay for more than $959,000 in improvements to the stadium, officials said.