FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — For most of the Yankees, it was just another spring-training drill. Coach Gene Michael hit baseballs into the outfield alleys Wednesday for the defense to work on its relay plays. The outfielders practiced throws to the cutoff man, and the pitchers ran the bases, accomplishing their daily leg work. But for shortstop Andre Robertson, the drill, like most everything else this spring, was a test.
Robertson had to make relay throws from shallow centerfield and leftfield to third base and home. They are long throws that would have taxed his arm last spring, when his shoulder was pained and weak from an August 1983, car accident. But Wednesday his throws skipped to their destinations on one sure hop. They were accurate, strong and pain-free.
"It feels good to throw the ball and not say 'Ouch,' " Robertson said after the workout. "As long as I use my feet properly to set to throw, I don't feel anything. When I don't set up and just throw with my arm, then the pain comes. There's been no pain. Not yet."
With that, he knocked on his wooden locker stall not twice but six times. The only chances he will take, of course, will be at shortstop. He has done well enough there to be a pleasant surprise to his coaches.
"You have to measure his improvement since the last time we sent him down," Michael said, referring to Robertson's demotion to Columbus June 15. "Since then, the difference is 100 percent improvement."
Robertson appears healthy enough to push Bobby Meacham as the starting shortstop. Manager Yogi Berra said the job is Meacham's until he loses it. Robertson's challenge will depend on how well he plays in the exhibition games, which begin Thursday against the Houston Astros.
"It's easy hitting here when every ball comes down the middle," Robertson said. "The test is playing in the games and getting curves thrown at you. I think if I do well there, then I can say I have a legitimate shot at the starting job."
The unsettled nature of the job is second nature to Robertson and Meacham. Neither has spent an entire season with the Yankees, though Robertson would have done so if it were not for the accident. They have been shuttled so often between the Yankees and Columbus, their Triple-A team, that the two shortstops shared the rental of an apartment in Columbus. When Meacham moved up, Robertson moved in, and vice versa.
Meacham has been called up and sent down within 24 hours twice as a Yankee. His most stunning demotion came last April 7 after he made a throwing error against the Texas Rangers. He bypassed Columbus that time and plummeted to Double-A Nashville.
"A lot of people thought I was going to jump off a bridge," Meacham said. "My wife was in Texas and helped me get through it. We cried for about 20 minutes and then just prayed and opened up the Bible. After the first day I was fine.
"Someone asked me a couple of years ago, when Roy Smalley was here, about a shortstop controversy. I say the same thing now. I'm never really bothered by any controversy in my mind because I'm concerned with myself and playing to the best of my ability. I know my ability is good enough that I will be playing somewhere."
Meacham, like Robertson, also must make a comeback of sorts. He was batting .288 through Aug. 4 last season but slumped into a .223 tailspin to finish at .253. He had 19 hits in 90 at-bats (.211) after Sept. 1.
"I don't expect anything to be given to me or to be babied," Meacham said. "I don't expect anything. Too many things have happened before for that. I know everything that comes to me has to be earned."