Jeff Conine believes he can be a productive major league player again. He believes he can hit 25 homers and drive in 100 runs again, as he did in 1995 and 1996. He believes he can bring the same run production he has delivered this season in a part-time role to the Baltimore Orioles in 2000 while playing every day. The only question is, do the Orioles believe it?
Filling in while first baseman Will Clark rests a sore elbow, Conine capped a dominating series today by banging out four more hits and driving in two more runs in the Orioles' 9-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins in front of 38,320 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Orioles starter Jason Johnson (4-7) pitched seven solid innings and struck out a career-high seven batters, rookie third baseman Ryan Minor hit his first major league homer, and second baseman Delino DeShields broke the game open with a three-run homer in the fifth inning, giving the Orioles a sweep in this three-game series.
Conine went 9 for 11 in the series with three doubles, a homer and four RBI, adding more evidence to the case he is building for a starting job in 2000. In his last 41 games -- about a quarter of a full season -- he is hitting .364 with 22 RBI.
"He has a short, quick swing," said Orioles Manager Ray Miller. "He has a rigid, upright, stand-still kind of stance. You see that and say, `How can he hit that way?' But all you have to do is shake his hand or have him punch you in the ribs one time, and you find out he's a massively strong man."
When the Orioles traded for Conine this spring, they envisioned him as a key bench player for a contending team. He could spell Clark at first base, B.J. Surhoff in left and Albert Belle in right and be a designated hitter against left-handed pitchers.
But while the Orioles have sputtered, Clark has struggled both to remain healthy and to be productive when he is. He has started only 65 of the team's 119 games and driven in only 29 runs. Meantime, Conine has driven in more runs and struck out fewer times than Clark -- for almost half the money. Clark is in the first year of a two-year, $11 million contract. Conine is signed for this year at $2.96 million.
"When I came here, I still felt I could play every day," said Conine, who also has played left field, right field, DH and third base. "But when you're in a role where that's not possible, you want people to see you can do it every day. I think I've shown people I can do that."
But has he shown the right people? Asked today about Conine, Miller spoke in glowing terms, but it was clear he still considered Conine a bench player.
"If you're talking about trying to win the division, that's what you need -- you want guys on the bench who can play multiple positions," Miller said. "The more guys you have like him, the easier it is to rest [starters]."
Pressed about Conine's production this season, Miller conceded, "I think Jeff could be an everyday player here next year, depending on what you do with everyone else."
But Conine looks around him, sees Clark signed through 2000, Surhoff through 2001 and Belle through 2003 and doesn't expect many changes. "I don't see my role changing much," he said, "because the same guys are coming back unless something happens in the offseason."
Batting in the same general spot in the order as Clark -- generally fifth or sixth -- Conine has averaged one RBI every 6.1 at-bats, compared with Clark's ratio of one RBI every 8.7 at-bats.
Today, Conine's third hit of the game, a single in the fifth inning, chased Twins starter Dan Perkins (1-6), who was making just his 12th major league start. Right-hander Bob Wells entered, and on his fourth pitch, DeShields hit his sixth homer of the season.
This was one of those rare series in which everything came together for the Orioles -- albeit against a weak opponent -- and one could catch a glimpse of the way the whole season was supposed to have gone.
"It's been a rough year. I'm just trying to finish it in one piece," said DeShields, who, like Clark, has had various injuries. "This is my most disappointing season. I wanted everything to go right, not only for myself but for the team. It didn't work out. I just hope we can keep the guys together one more year."