BOSTON — It took four seasons, but Larry Sheets has finally come in from the cold. He realizes that there are advantages to being the Baltimore Orioles' designated hitter, and especially on frigid April evenings.
"Now, it's good to use the elements in your favor," Sheets said. "Those guys are freezing. I'm going to be warm when I go up to hit."
Being a designated hitter means never having to say you're sorry about ducking into a warm clubhouse. It's a small thing perhaps, but it's significant that Sheets has abandoned his DH stance in favor of a more enlightened approach.
Indeed, the results already are starting to show. Sheets hit his first three-run homer since Aug. 7, 1987, in Saturday afternoon's 12-4 trouncing of the Boston Red Sox, matching his career game high of four runs batted in.
His turnaround is a microcosm of the club's: The Orioles were tied for first place in the American League East with the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers before Monday's 6-4 loss to Boston.
"I know it's early and we may come in last, but I guarantee you we've already changed people's opinions of the Baltimore Orioles," Sheets said. "It's not a fluke for us to win ballgames."
Sheets' fast start also appears genuine. He already has six RBI, one more than his total the final month of the 1988 season. In fact, he's on a 97-RBI pace, which sounds more like 1987 (94 RBI) than 1988 (47).
Orioles Manager Frank Robinson, careful not to get excited, continues to insist that Sheets faces a "long haul" back. Sheets says that he still needs to start driving the ball, but the signs--granted, the early signs--are good.
"The key to my success this season is going to be the fact that I've finally accepted being a DH," Sheets said. "It's something I've fought for four years. But, what's the use of fighting it?
"I'm still taking balls at first base and I'm sure before the year's out I'll play there. But, for the first part of '89, I'm going to accept the job of DH. It gives me a clear mind coming to the park."
That, of course, is a critical first step. Sheets, 29, is coming off a year in which he suffered the biggest decrease in average (.316 to .230) among qualifying American League hitters. He faces enough of a battle without pouting about his role, however disagreeable it may be.
Last year, he knows, was an absolute struggle, and it isn't forgotten. The occasional jeering at Memorial Stadium hurt, but Sheets said he understood. "I'm kind of like Dallas Green (manager of the New York Yankees)," he said. "They were booing me. I was booing myself, too. I was pathetic."
Robinson tried him at first base this spring, but Sheets has not played an inning at that position thus far. A return to the outfield is out of the question; Sheets trumpets the Orioles' improved outfield defense as loudly as anyone.
The difference now, he realizes, is that he doesn't have to play the field to contribute to a winning effort. "My goal this year is to be the best designated hitter in the American League," Sheets said. "I can play a long time if I'm the best at what I do."
Said Robinson, "When you first go to a guy, especially a young guy who has been playing, it's very difficult for him to accept not playing in the field. Last year, I guess it was. He fought it. But it's not a put-down of his abilities. It's saying, 'This is where you fit on the ballclub.' "
In the past, Sheets sat in the dugout between his at-bats, replaying the last one, thinking about the next one. The top designated hitters, however, understand that they are actually pinch-hitting four times a game, and they adjust accordingly. Often, it's best not to think.
Hitting coach Tom McCraw said that Sheets gradually is evolving from the timid hitter he saw at the start of spring training to a more fearsome presence at the plate. Sheets, too, senses he's returning to his '87 form, little by little, day by day.
The difference, all around, is attitude. "In the past I'd look around the room and say, 'I don't want to associate with this guy or that guy,' Sheets said. "There was a few of them. This year, I look around and say, 'That guy's all right.'
"The camaraderie on the team is better than it's been in two or three years. It's a good bunch of guys - guys that want to get dirty, guys that if they're not in the lineup, they're upset. They want to be in there."