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Orioles' Tettleton Gets Back In Swing

March 25, 1990|RICHARD JUSTICE | WASHINGTON POST

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Baltimore Orioles got lucky in dozens of ways last season. In their wildest dreams, they couldn't have known that Gregg Olson would be an All-Star-caliber reliever, that Jeff Ballard would win 18 games or that Craig Worthington would be one of the game's best third basemen.

Yet none of these small miracles came close to matching that of Mickey Lee Tettleton.

He'd been released by the Oakland Athletics in the spring of 1988, signed a Rochester contract and became a regular while the Orioles were losing 107 games.

No one noticed that he quietly put together a solid year, but last season almost no one could forget that he hit 26 home runs and drove in 65 runs in only 411 at-bats. The networks did interviews, the magazines did articles and when his wife casually mentioned what he ate for breakfast, he became The Froot Loops Kid.

Such a fast climb might have rocked anyone, especially someone so shy--someone who counts riding his thoroughbred on desolate Arizona trails as perhaps his greatest thrill.

It's an incredible ride for a guy who spent eight seasons in pro ball before spending a full season in the majors. He got five shots in the big time and always ended up back in the minors because he got hurt or someone else healed. He was 28 when the Orioles signed him, and he sported a .233 career batting average. He's one of the reasons men are willing to spend a decade in the minors. Every once in a long while, one of them makes it.

Mickey Tettleton was once one of them. Then all of a sudden, he made it.

All those hours in the weight room and batting cage and all those bus trips to places like Modesto and Albany were rewarded when he became one of the amazing stories on an amazing team.

"The whole year was kind of like a dream," Tettleton said. "I remember looking around the clubhouse before the All-Star Game and seeing me in there with all those superstars. I felt completely out of place. I couldn't see me being in there with those guys."

His lone appearance was in a pinch-hitting chance against Mitch Williams. He struck out.

"It was a great strikeout," he said. "I enjoyed it."

It may have been a fantasy year, but his goal now is to prove it was no fluke. During a winter in which his salary jumped from $300,000 to $750,000, Tettleton said he followed the same routine of weightlifting, hitting and running he used the previous winter.

He came prepared to prove last season was the beginning of his career and not its only shining moment. Two days into spring training, his hands are a bloody mess as he tries to build six weeks of blisters into three.

It's no small challenge because he's one of the reasons the '90 Orioles may be as interesting as the '89 Orioles. A lot of baseball people don't believe they can win 87 games again. They say the Orioles walked into every break imaginable, and that while some of their kids may be the real thing, not all of them can be.

"People can say whatever they want," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We've got guys here who work hard and we think we're going to be better."

No one fits that description better than Tettleton, who won a few dozen admirers last season when he routinely was one of the first players to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave. He began every game day by swinging off a tee and talking about hitting with coach Tommy McCraw.

"Sometimes it would take five minutes, sometimes more," McCraw said. "But he wanted to hit long enough to feel himself get in that kind of groove he wanted to be in when the game started. That's the kind of work ethic he has. It wasn't me dragging him out there. He wants to work. You root for a guy like that to succeed."

McCraw drilled Tettleton to think like a home-run hitter, to forget about strikeouts and looking foolish and remember what his best tool is. One of those talks came on May 8 when he was hitting .200 and on a record strikeout pace.

McCraw told him the problem wasn't that he was striking out, but that he was worried about it.

"Home-run hitters strike out," McCraw told him. "Reggie Jackson struck out. Babe Ruth struck out. That's part of being the kind of hitter you are. He started thinking that way. It didn't matter if he struck out three times, he'd still get a fourth chance. There were a couple of games where he struck out two or three times, but won the game with a home run his last time up. That's the kind of hitter he can be."

Over the next 62 games, Tettleton hit .308 and raised his average to .275. He homered 11 times and had four four-RBI games. He led the American League in home runs until June and passed his previous season record for home runs on May 29.

His dream season took a different turn on Aug. 4 after a collision at home plate aggravated a left knee that was already sore. Doctors performed arthroscopic surgery to remove a cyst, and Tettleton was sidelined until Sept. 1.

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