He’s back in center field, back in the American League East, back in pursuit of a reputation that took almost as much of a beating as his body did during four years in Anaheim.
Fred Lynn is 33 now, but here, with the Baltimore Orioles, he’s the fair-haired boy again. There he is, healthy and smiling on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the prized free-agent acquisition of a team that in the past has ignored free agents but last winter collected them like Krugerrands.
“The Orioles always had a couple of options, either signing a guy (free agent) or bringing up a young prospect who might give them 15 years of service,” said Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore’s All-Star shortstop. “This past year, they may not have had the guys in the system to fill their needs.
“But they were committed to putting together the best ballclub they could for both the players and the fans, and that’s what they did. And that’s good.”
It’s also expensive. The Orioles signed Lynn for five years at $6.8 million. They added another former Angel, relief pitcher Don Aase, for four years at $2.4 million, and an ex-Pirate, Lee Lacy, for four years at $2.2 million.
“Once every 10 years they go out and do something like that,” Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey said. “And they get pretty good mileage out of the players they get.”
The Orioles are looking less for long-term dividends than an immediate payoff. Lynn, Lacy and Aase are being counted upon to restore the Orioles to preeminence in baseball’s toughest division.
“There’s an amazing difference in attitude,” said Ray (Rabbit) Miller, Baltimore’s pitching coach. “I see the same intensity this spring as there was in ’83, when we lost the division on the last day of 1982. Everybody came here with something to prove, and pushed themselves a little more. That’s what we have now.”
The Orioles, World Series champions in ’83, finished fifth last season, but their 85-77 record still was better than those posted by any of the seven teams in the AL West. And that, more than anything else, is why he’s happy to be here, Lynn said.
“Any time I go to a quality club, I’m happy, because you have a chance to win,” he said Tuesday. “And I’m in this thing to win.”
Dempsey said that having Lynn in center field gives the Orioles a dimension they haven’t enjoyed since they had Paul Blair and his throwing arm. “Al Bumbry was a good center fielder--he ran a lot of balls down--but his one weakness was his arm,” Dempsey said. “Freddie’s going to throw some guys out here. He’s going to have a lot of assists.”
Last season, the Angels switched Lynn to right field to make room for rookie Gary Pettis, although when Pettis faltered at the plate, Lynn went back to center for 27 of his last 29 starts.
“Right field is not my spot,” Lynn said. “I did it just for the benefit of the club. We were trying to get some speed in the lineup.”
Asked if he’d heard who the Angels’ new right fielder was, Lynn smiled. “Big Reg,” he said, referring to Reggie Jackson. “He always did hit better when he was in the field.”
In one of Lynn’s first games here, he caught a ball with his back to the plate, whirled and doubled a runner off first. But although his defense should be an asset, the Orioles paid a premium for his bat.
“Offensively, he and Lacy will add some punch,” Altobelli said. “We were something like 118 runs short of our ’83 output, and in our division you need something like 800 runs to compete.”
Lacy, a .300 hitter in four of his last five seasons, will bat at the top of the order. Lynn will be in the No. 5 spot, behind Ripken and All-Star Eddie Murray, who between them hit 56 home runs and drove in 196 runs last season. Murray, in particular, should benefit from Lynn’s presence.
“Eddie walked 107 times last season and could have easily walked 180 times,” Miller said. “Every time he did, it was depressing. Now, it’s fun.”
That’s the way it was supposed to be with the Angels, too, when Lynn returned home to Southern California after a trade with Boston in the winter of 1981. Instead, there was a run of injuries--two knee operations, a cracked rib, and groin and wrist problems--that kept Lynn from reaching the level he had achieved in Boston.
In Lynn’s rookie season with the Red Sox in 1975, he was the league’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year, and the Red Sox took Cincinnati to seven games in the World Series. In his first season with the Angels, Lynn batted .219 and didn’t hit a home run after May 1, and the Angels finished fifth.
In six seasons with the Red Sox, Lynn averaged .308, 20 home runs and 85 RBIs. In four seasons with the Angels, Lynn averaged .271. Last season, the only one he spent in Anaheim in which he was not hurt, Lynn hit .271 with 23 home runs and 79 RBIs. But in the last 14 games of the season, with the Angels still in contention for the division title, Lynn hit only .157.
Early in his career, people said that Lynn made it all look easy, in the manner of a DiMaggio. In Anaheim, they said maybe he took it too easy. He was too laid-back, too Californian . Maybe, it was said, he was strictly a Fenway Park hitter. And maybe he didn’t play against certain left-handers because he didn’t want to.
Asked about the laid-back claim, Lynn’s jaw set and the answer was terse. “I did the best I could,” he said.
In an earlier interview with Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe, Lynn had elaborated.
“Look, California is two states. Those that live within three miles of the beach are laid-back and have the beach mentality. The rest of us aren’t any different than people in most other parts of the country, especially me, no matter what other people thought.”
Tuesday, Lynn said he had not ducked left-handers, against whom he batted .226 last season.
“I was platooned,” he said. “You can’t play if the manager doesn’t put you in. I told Mac (John McNamara) and Gene (Autry) both (that he wanted to play).
“But it’s the manager’s decision. He wanted to make sure everybody was strong late in the season, which is fine.
“But as far as maintaining continuity as a hitter, it’s tough when you’re used to playing every day. I didn’t win a batting championship (.333 in 1979) by being platooned.”
His biggest regret as an Angel, he said, was the team’s failure to win the pennant in 1982, after leading the Milwaukee Brewers in the playoffs, two games to none.
“That was the toughest,” Lynn said. “We had a real good club. Then (Don) Baylor left and (Tim) Foli was gone, and the makeup of the team was different. It’s pretty hard to replace a Baylor. He was a pretty strong figure on the club, on the field and in the clubhouse. He was the team leader.”
Lynn disputed the notion that the Angels were top-heavy in superstars and egos, saying that if they had remained healthy, they could have won another division title.
“I believe in having as many good players on your team as you can get,” he said. “But it’s a matter of keeping your guys on the field enough. You can’t lose your horses.”
The biggest difference in Baltimore, Lynn said, is one of philosophy.
“I’ve been on slugging teams all my life, teams that relied on hitting to win. It’s refreshing to come to a team that relies on pitching.
“Here they expect you to hit three-run home runs and pitch shutouts.”
The Angels, Lynn said, “didn’t get down to decision-making time,” which was a polite way of saying that they made little effort to retain him last winter. Obviously, the Orioles project a much different future for Lynn.
So far, Lynn has been doing most everything right. Until going 0 for 3 against the Dodgers in the Orioles’ 3-1 loss Tuesday, Lynn had hit safely in six straight games, batting .500 (7 for 14) with 7 RBIs.
In his spare time, he shot a 75 on the Doral golf course, and before Tuesday’s game he threw a perfect strike from near the on-deck circle into the press box, about 100 feet above the field, where Oriole broadcaster Jon Miller was imitating the Fenway Park PA announcer while giving the lineups.
“If I get in enough games, I’m going to do what’s expected of me,” he said. “And there should be no reason I don’t play in as many games as Joe wants me to.”
Lynn will be 38 when his contract expires. Asked if it would be his last, he laughed.
“Let’s see, in 10 or 15 more years I’ll be 48, then I’m going to quit,” he said. “This is fun for me. I’m having a good time. I’ll play as long as people want me to play.”