Baseball's night-heavy schedule conflicts with Jeff Conine's other favorite pastime—watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. During one of the Orioles' trips to New York last year he scored tickets to a taping of the show, courtesy of his sister-in-law, one of the producers. Host Regis Philbin engaged Conine in some on-air chitchat, and the experience got the player's competitive juices going. "They told me they'd be doing a celebrity show and said they'd give me a call," he says. "I didn't get the call. Too bad, because when I watch at home, I do pretty well."
Conine can take heart that he was Baltimore's lifeline in 2001, providing the answer to the question, Does this team have any offense? Consigned to backup duty and considered trade bait when the team broke camp last spring, he got off to a fast start and by mid-May was the every-day cleanup hitter. The results passed for over-the-top in the team's punchless lineup. He hit .311 (10th best in the American League) with 14 home runs and led the team in RBIs (97, the only Oriole to drive in more than 68) and runs (75). His .400 average with runners in scoring position was the league's third highest. As it was, Baltimore scored the second-fewest runs (687), had the second-worst batting average (.248) and was shut out the most times (14) in the AL. Where would the club have been without Conine? "I don't even want to think about that," says G.M. Syd Thrift.
For the 35-year-old Conine it was a career renaissance, his first every-day gig since he helped the Marlins win the World Series in 1997. He also showed his versatility—he made starts at first base, third base, left-field, rightfield and DH—and low-key leadership, a valued commodity on a team that's searching for an identity for the first time in two decades. With the retirement of icon Cal Ripken Jr., there's no longer a distraction from the fact that the team hasn't had a winning season in five years.
Conine, who was given Ripken's corner locker in the spring training clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale, likely will assume the role of clubhouse elder on a team that counts 27 players on the 40-man roster with three years of major league experience or less. He already counsels some of them about on-and off-field matters. "He doesn't talk much, but when he does, you listen," says outfielder Jay Gibbons, 25, who led the team with 15 homers as a rookie last year, though his season was cut short in August by a broken right hand. "If you don't, he'll put you in a headlock. He's got a strong grip."
Ripken's departure might loosen things up for some young players. "I admit the first month of the season I didn't say a word to him, I was so scared to death," says Gibbons. "When I broke my hand, I was embarrassed to look at him—he played all those games, and here I was hurt in my first season."
Baltimore's pitchers had plenty of reasons to be red-faced as well. The Orioles ranked 22nd in the league with a 4.67 ERA, and there's no guarantee that they'll be better this season. Righthander Scott Erickson is trying to come back from last year's elbow surgery, and the bullpen is filled with players who have strong arms (Kris Foster, Jorge Julio and Willis Roberts) but little experience.
Another change from the Ripken era: The title of Conine's favorite game show is now a legitimate question in the Baltimore clubhouse. The team's payroll has been reduced from $83 million two years ago to about $40 million, and Thrift says he didn't chase free agents this winter because the team is determined to let its youngsters develop. How much they mature will determine whether Baltimore finishes fourth or fifth in the AL East.
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