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Damon Buford Is Subject of Tug-of-War Between Oriole Execs

March 26, 1994|KEN ROSENTHAL | BALTIMORE SUN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Johnny Oates apparently wants to keep outfielder Damon Buford, and he just might get his wish. But if Buford makes the Baltimore Orioles, Oates must find a way to use him, or the front office will insist that he return to Triple-A Rochester to play every day.

Buford, 23, is caught in the middle of an age-old baseball conflict between a manager trying to win this season and a front office planning for the future. The best thing for him probably is to return to Triple-A. But Buford disputes that notion, as does Oates and Buford's father, Don, a member of the Orioles' coaching staff.

The question is, would Buford get enough playing time in Baltimore? Ideally, Brady Anderson, Mike Devereaux and Jeffrey Hammonds each will start 150 games in the outfield. That would leave Buford in the same position he was last season, when he spent all but one month with the Orioles but batted only 79 times.

Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said Thursday that Buford's development would be hindered if Oates again used him primarily as a pinch runner. Robinson also believes that other clubs might want to trade for Buford if the Orioles had given him more exposure last season.

Buford is batting .368 this spring, and he leads the club with 57 at-bats. Yet Robinson said that teams are showing virtually no interest in him - astounding, considering that Robinson believes Buford is the club's best defensive center fielder, ahead of even Anderson, Devereaux and Hammonds.

"If he had played last year at Triple-A, we would have had calls," Robinson said. "It's just that clubs haven't been able to see him. Off his spring training performance, clubs can say, 'Yeah, he's hitting down here -- but will he hit during the season?' "

The Orioles need not answer that question right now, but if they trade Devereaux or lose him as a free agent, Buford and Mark Smith likely would compete for a starting job in 1995. That's why Buford's development is so important. The Orioles don't want him coming off two years of virtual inactivity next season.

But as the manager -- the club official judged solely on his won-lost record -- Oates takes a different perspective. Buford would be the only base-stealing threat on the Orioles' bench, which makes him more useful than third baseman Leo Gomez, and probably even first baseman/outfielder David Segui.

The Orioles probably will need to trade both those players to clear a roster spot for Buford, but Oates indicated Thursday that he's lobbying strongly for the son of his new outfield and bench coach. Remember how emotional Oates was when he cut Brad Pennington last spring? Buford is this year's Pennington, a favorite of the manager's.

"If he helps us win this year, he's going to be here," Oates said. "He's a special player -- what he did for me last year, the spring he's had, what he does to help us win ballgames. If it's a tie game in the ninth inning and you put him in to pinch run for (Harold) Baines, he's the one guy who can go steal a base for you."

But to Robinson and other club officials, that's not enough. Heck, Buford appeared in 23 games as a pinch runner last season, and stole only one base. After one of the more spectacular opening weeks in Orioles history (8 for 19, two homers, six RBI) he practically disappeared, starting only three games after May 25.

"I don't feel he has to play every day," Robinson said. "But a young player who comes up here has to be used. If a young player like him gets 200-250 at-bats, that's fine. But if a young player comes up and you don't use him -- if you play him once in a while, use him as a pinch runner, a defensive replacement -- he's better off playing every day at Triple-A."

Robinson said Buford's '93 season was "like a year that wasn't there." Buford, however, said that he would be disappointed to return to Rochester -- an understandable position, but one that isn't entirely justified, considering that he has only 271 at-bats at Triple-A.

"What more can I do?" Buford asked. "I believe I've gotten to the point where I can't really do much more at Triple-A. I can learn a whole lot more here. Even if I'm sitting on the bench, I can look at (major-league) pitchers, put myself in situations. When I'm in Triple-A, I can't do that."

Said Buford's father, Don: "I would have him on my ballclub, no doubt about it. The way he's matured as a hitter, the difference is like night and day. If he gets 150-200 at-bats, that would be fine. Anything can happen in this game. What if one of your outfielders can't play, and he gets in the lineup and goes 4 for 4?"

It's not an unreasonable question, especially with Hammonds coming off a herniated disk in his neck and Devereaux a series of nagging injuries. But Robinson believes Buford is a special talent. He projects him as a .260-.270 hitter in his first season and a .280-.300 hitter after that.

"And," Robinson said, "there's an underlying bonus people don't realize -- this kid is going to hit some home runs. I'm not talking about a lot of home runs, but some. He's shown tremendous improvement the last year and a half offensively."

So, it's the age-old conflict -- short-term ambition vs. long-term vision. Robinson, a former manager himself, understands how important it is to give Oates the players he wants. But he wants what's best for Buford, what's best for the team.

It's not like Robinson is trying to hold back Buford -- quite the contrary. "I've seen this kid grow up," said Robinson, a former teammate of Don Buford's. "There's probably nobody but him and his family who wants to see him in the big leagues more."

But when the time is right.

Not before.

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