MIAMI, FEB. 19 -- There were prayers that were answered and prayers that weren't in 1987, tears of joy and tears of pain. Finally, there was hope and optimism. With Don Aase, it always gets back to that: hope and optimism.
He had it in 1972 when he began his pro career by going 0-10 for a Boston Red Sox rookie league team. He had it in 1982 when Los Angeles surgeon Lewis Yocum patched his right elbow back together with a piece of tendon from his left wrist.
And he certainly had it last year, although he admits there were times when it looked as if the world around him was crumbling in a dozen directions.
"I did a lot of praying," he said today, sitting on an exercise bike in the middle of the Baltimore Orioles' spring training clubhouse. "I suffered through the worst three months of my life. Nothing else I've experienced has come close."
Where does he start? He starts with a miracle. He and wife Judy had one child, but were unable to conceive another, so they adopted a daughter in late 1985. Then came the miracle when, in mid-1986, Judy became pregnant.
But six months after that, a doctor sat them down and soberly informed them their new baby probably would suffer from cystic fibrosis, a usually fatal disease that attacks a child's respiratory system. At the very least, he had a problem with his bowels that would require compl cated surgery at birth.
The terrible irony is that when Aase moved to Baltimore in 1985, he began doing volunteer work for the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He had visited sick kids in hospitals and at parties. He had seen their breathing problems, and he had been with one young girl the day before she died. He said the memory of that rail-thin child gasping for breath is etched into his memory.
"I knew about the disease," he said. "I knew what we were talking about. We'd been planning a vacation, and a doctor said, 'Go on the vacation like nothing has happened.' I couldn't believe he was saying that. I didn't know what to do, but I couldn't think about a vacation."
Aase's problems hit the Orioles family hard, not only because it was serious, but because it concerned two very popular people -- the quiet, likable reliever and his wife. There were team prayers and probably a few individual prayers, and offers for help all around.
Aase showed up at spring training last year with all of this on his mind, and on March 13, received word that the baby was about to be born. He hopped a Miami-to-Los Angeles flight and, while he was airborn, Judy gave birth to a strapping baby boy -- Alexander Kelby.
Incredibly, his health was perfect, and today, the Aases have a busy house with six-year-old Kyle and infants of 26 months and 11 months.
"We were astounded, happy, you name it," Aase said. "It's one of those things you can't talk about because words just don't describe what you feel."
So with a miracle in his pocket, he began the 1987 season, which turned out like a lot of the others in his 10-year career: He got hurt and ended up on an operating table, and his career is again in limbo.
It's a desperately important question for the Orioles. Aase saved a club-record 34 games in 1986, and the Orioles believe that, all their other problems notwithstanding, a healthy Don Aase might have saved their 1987 season.
They finished 67-95, and as bad as the starting pitching was, a respectable bullpen might have saved them. The evidence is that Orioles relievers blew 24 leads -- 18 in the seventh inning or later. Worse, they lost 10 games in which they were leading in the seventh or later, which could easily have turned 67-95 to 77-85 and something akin to respectability.
In a season when they used 18 pitchers -- the most by an Orioles team in 20 years -- 10 relievers were credited with at least one save. When they left south Florida last spring, their basic plan was to get a lead and give the ball to Aase in the eighth and ninth innings. Instead, he pitched in seven games, saving only two, and watched as people named Mike Kinnunen, Tony Arnold, Luis DeLeon and others got chances.
Aase's season pretty much ended after the second game of the season. The Orioles flew to Cleveland that night, and when Aase awoke the next morning, he could barely move his right arm. He ended up on the active roster for only 23 days, and underwent shoulder surgery on July 30. The surgery was a 40-minute procedure to repair tears in the labrum, which is the band of cartilage that rings the shoulder. It was serious enough that Aase didn't pick up a ball until December, and the Orioles still have no idea when he'll be 100 percent.
They don't expect him to be ready opening day, and a lot of their hopes for 1988 include him being healthy before the all-star break and combining with Tom Niedenfuer, Doug Sisk, Mark Williamson and Dave Schmidt to form a bullpen that should be more than respectable.
"The big thing right now is getting back the stamina and strength in the shoulder," he said. "I'm going to play it by ear. I feel fine, but the main thing I have to keep from doing is rushing back. I want to build up gradually and be back when I'm back. Doing it right may only be a matter of two weeks, and that's not much in the context of a long season."
Privately, some of the Orioles have said his injury was unnecessary, that some members of the staff noticed he wasn't throwing normally. He came to camp behind in his normal winter work routine, having not recovered from a 1986 back injury. Then leaving camp for the birth of his son set him even farther back.
By the end of spring training, he was trying to throw a 92-mph fastball without having conditioned his body. "I wasn't hurting," Aase said, "but my mechanics were all messed up. Because of that, I was trying to compensate by overthrowing, and that's something a power pitcher tends to do. That's why I have to guard against rushing back. When you rely on a fastball, it's just a matter of cranking it up, but cranking it up too quickly can be the worst thing. I think I can be ready for the start of the season, but we just won't know until we get into spring training."
He's asked about bad luck, having suffered two serious injuries and spent roughly 3 1/2 years of a 10-year career on the disabled list. He shakes his head.
"I feel fortunate," he said. "Everyone has problems, but I was fortunate to come back from the first injury. We were fortunate with the baby. I have a lot to be thankful for."
Reliever Tippy Martinez threw in Baltimore for the Minnesota Twins today, then accepted their make-good invitation to spring training. He said the Orioles were his first choice, "but they didn't seem interested. The Twins said they'll give me a chance to pitch in some games, and the Orioles wouldn't even offer that." . . . Twenty-six players took part in today's opening workouts. The only players scheduled to report who didn't were pitchers Jay Tibbs and Jose Mesa. Tibbs, acquired from Montreal this week, was given an extra day, and Mesa was reported to have visa problems returning from the Dominican Republic. Both are scheduled to be at Saturday's workout.