MIAMI — Mike Boddicker says it means nothing, this business about getting the opening day start or the tag of "Staff Ace" or even hearing that the key to the 1987 Baltimore Orioles might be his having not merely a good season, but a great one.
That would be the kind of season Roger Clemens had for the Boston Red Sox in 1986 and Bret Saberhagen had for the Kansas City Royals in 1985. The kind Boddicker himself had in 1983 and again in '84 when he rolled up a 38-19 record and a 2.67 earned-run average.
He has followed those two years with a cumulative 26-29 record and a ghastly 4.40 ERA, and has been so bad at times, that the Orioles wondered if those first two seasons were flukes.
So one of their biggest stories this spring has been that, from the first day of workouts to his most recent turn on the mound, Boddicker has been terrific.
He has a 1.29 ERA in two spring appearances, and more impressive, his fastball is back to around 88 m.p.h., he has regained his 1984 change-up and he has even added a new, mysterious pitch that "drops off the table." All these combine with the usual assortment of curveballs and sliders and a knuckleball that "will be my bread and butter if I decide to pitch until I'm 50."
First, there's the matter of correcting the last two seasons.
"Besides the injuries, my problem has been in not throwing strikes," he said. "When I'm pitching well, I may hit the corners, but I make sure everything is in the strike zone."
He says he finally has his problems worked out after a healing winter in his native Iowa and a half-dozen January workouts with bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks.
"My delivery changed after I hurt my knee last year," he said, "and when we got it straightened out, a lot of things fell back into place. My fastball now has as much movement as it has had in a long time, and that's a great sign. A great change, too."
He'll apparently be rewarded by getting his first opening-day start. Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. won't say it, but he appears to be leaning toward Boddicker, which would be appropriate for a pitcher who trails only Fernando Valenzuela and Jack Morris in victories since he came to the major leagues to stay in early 1983.
In that time, he has won 62 times, and even last season, when he didn't win once after Aug. 4, his 14-12 record was the only winning one by an Orioles starter.
"I'll take the ball if they give it to me," he said, "but it doesn't mean a thing. There are a lot of games after the first one. I believe what (Mike Flanagan) has been saying, that for a team to be successful, you have to have at least two pitchers hot all the time. I was a big winner in 1984 (20-11), and it didn't get us to the playoffs."
This spring, he has tried to wash away the memories of what may have been his most frustrating season, one he divides into two parts. The good part ended May 9 when he tore a ligament in the middle finger of his pitching hand.
At the time, doctors told him the finger would probably take about six months to heal, and that if he took the remainder of the season off, the Orioles would understand. They said if he did pitch, there would be days when the finger was puffy and sore and games when his change-up and breaking ball would be flat.
Boddicker said he still wanted to pitch and, for a while, it looked as if he'd be able to compensate. By June 20, he was 10-1 with a 3.48 ERA and appeared headed toward a second 20-win season in three years.
"Then I started seeing teams for the third time," Boddicker said, "and by then they knew I didn't have my best pitch (the change-up). I was dead."
He went only 4-11 the rest of the way, and after beating Toronto on Aug. 4, lost his last seven decisions.
When the season ended, he'd had enough. His finger was not well, his left knee was sore and he had sprained his right thumb in a collision with Cleveland's Rick Manning.
He returned to his hometown of Norway, Iowa, shoveled grain, did chores and followed University of Iowa football and basketball. He said he didn't so much as pick up a baseball before returning to Baltimore in January.
Few Orioles doubt he'll succeed. They've had pitchers who threw harder or had better control, but few like him. He makes $800,000 a year, yet drives a Blazer and aspires, not to a condo in the Alps, but a farm in Iowa.
In the Orioles' clubhouse, he is respected, if not always loved. Former Orioles pitcher Storm Davis said he never forgot the first time they met.
"That was back in the days when I was a little overweight," Davis said, "and when Bod met me, he looked me over, smiled and said, 'Yeah, they told me you were a fat pig.' "
His agent, Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, says he knew Boddicker was special one weekend when he had him as a house guest.
"I told him we'd been having trouble with mice, so that if he heard any strange noises he shouldn't be alarmed," Shapiro said. "One morning he comes into the kitchen, is holding two live mice by the nape of the neck and says, 'Say, Ron, what do you want me to do with these guys?' "