The thing about Alan Wiggins is, nobody knows.
Nobody knows how much the soon-to-be newest Oriole can contribute to Baltimore’s pennant hopes this season.
Nobody knows if he can come back successfully after his second drug-rehabilitation program to do what the Orioles want of him, to get on base as their leadoff hitter and steal bases, to be the top-of-the-order catalyst.
Most important, nobody knows if he can beat cocaine dependency.
What is clear is that he has the best wishes of many.
From San Diego, Padre owner Joan Kroc, who dealt Wiggins away, said, “I’m very fond of Alan and wish him the best.” Trading him, she said, was “a heartbreaker.”
But one of her best players clearly didn’t agree with the move.
Said Tony Gwynn, last year’s major league batting champion who hit behind Wiggins and received an inordinate number of fastballs from pitchers trying to keep Wiggins from stealing: “Alan did so much for the club. We’re a different ballclub without him. I feel he was kind of railroaded out of here. I think things were said and done that shouldn’t have been said and done. . . . But this is a new start for him in Baltimore. I think he’s going to prosper.”
Jeff Schaefer, the Rochester Red Wings second baseman whose job Wiggins has taken while working his way back into shape, said here Sunday morning, standing next to the batting cage at creaky Silver Stadium, “Baseball has been Alan’s life, but it won’t be his life if he doesn’t get well. That’s what I hope for first.”
It was 11 o’clock, and almost no one was at the old minor league park to which Wiggins’ odyssey has taken him. But he was in the cage, taking extra batting practice, knowing he would shortly be back in the major leagues. He’s tall and slender, 6-feet 2-inches, 168 pounds--"I was surprised by his build when he came in here,” Schaefer said.
Wiggins is long-legged, having the look of a runner, and in the cage met every pitch with a level swing from both the right and left sides of the plate. In his debut Saturday night, when the Red Wings beat Richmond, 10-1, in an International League game, he showed signs that he can do what the Orioles want.
But help lead them to a pennant? That’s a big order.
Going 1 for 4 with an RBI double and a walk, he looked like a contact hitter who can get on, slapping the ball to the opposite field each time.
It wasn’t an altogether glorious beginning, however. He was thrown out stealing and thrown out at the plate--"Probably that wasn’t a real good decision on my part,” sending him in on a hit to right, said the Red Wings’ young manager, Mark Wiley.
Wiggins also booted a ground ball and missed a throw from the third baseman, for two errors. But teammates were hopeful about him.
“He does have defensive shortcomings,” Schaefer said, “but the Orioles don’t want him for defense right now. He can get on base. He’s a threat to steal. That’s been Alan’s game.”
Said Brad Havens, Saturday night’s winning pitcher: “It’s just a matter of his getting the ground balls, the work. His job is to put the bat on the ball and start scooting. Get a base and steal a bag. I know he can play. I played with him at Davenport in the Midwest League. He was a good player back then, but now you can see the confidence and maturity in him.”
Wiggins, 27, displayed those attributes at a crowded news conference Saturday. But after the game, in the cramped clubhouse, he seemed as if he could have done without the cluster of reporters at his locker.
“I just want to play baseball,” he said at one point.
The spotlight can sear, and he is in it.
“I told him he should be 100% when he goes up because he’s going to be the focus of attention from all the notoriety connected with this,” said Hank Peters, Oriole general manager.
Rochester is merely a preview of what he can expect.
“He’s quiet, kind of neutral,” Schaefer said. “It’s got to be hard on him. He’s got to be looking at everybody else, saying, what are they thinking about me? But we’re not going to judge. That’s God’s job.
“But Hank Peters, Edward Bennett Williams, they’ve gone out on a limb. Alan has to look at himself and say he’s lucky, too. It’s a new lease on life for him. Temptation lurks everywhere, but if he can fight it off. . . .”
If only, because when he has played, he’s played exceedingly well. In 1983, he might have been the most valuable Padre, playing 105 games in the outfield and 45 games at first base when Steve Garvey was injured. He batted .276 and stole 66 bases.
Last season, he was converted to a second baseman, stole 70 bases and scored 106 runs on a .258 average. During the playoffs and World Series, he hit .341 in 10 games.
“He probably won’t have as much impact here as he will on the major league club, because he’s just getting into shape,” Wiley said.
Once in shape, Wiggins will steal “80 or 90 bases,” said Gwynn, but at this point of the season, he added, those numbers might not be possible until 1986. Gwynn is simply sorry Wiggins is gone from San Diego.
“The way it worked out is unfortunate,” Gwynn said. “It definitely makes Baltimore a contender in the Eastern Division. He opens up lots of things Baltimore hasn’t had in a long time.
“Because of him, I saw a lot of fastballs. Now we’re getting things turned around, but it has been nothing like when Alan Wiggins was here.”
Gwynn said had Wiggins returned to the Padres, fan reaction would have been “mixed,” and his presence “would have made some of the players here a little uneasy.”
But he thinks Wiggins was “shortchanged.”
“She (Kroc) had her mind set,” Gwynn said. “You have to respect her for that. She stood up for what she thought was right.
“But doing that led to certain things being said and certain things being printed. From what I saw and read I think he was shortchanged. That’s one man’s opinion.
“I honestly believe he isn’t going to have another problem.”
Kroc, who succeeded her husband Ray as Padres owner when he died last year, called the Wiggins departure a case of “tough love.”
“We told Alan if it happened again he would not be with us,” she said. “I think this is for Alan’s best interests. Because Alan’s slate is clean and he has a new beginning, which he couldn’t have had with the Padres.
“The fact is, we said what we meant and meant what we said. It would have been the most self-serving thing we could have done to keep him. He can end up such an inspiration to youth--if he can stay straight.
“And I pray that he will.”
Said Schaefer, referring to Wiggins’ four-year, $2.8-million contract: “He’s got a chance to grab a pot of gold now. He can be financially set for life.”
Or have no life at all. If Henry Wiggen, the fictional pitcher created by Mark Harris in his novels, was the epitome of the simpler-days baseball player, who’d hum the ball all summer and watch the snow pile up in winter, Alan Wiggins is an extreme example of a modern player who could gain great riches or succumb to extreme peril.
In the glare of the spotlight, he must conduct his own second spring training, succeed in his “after-care” drug program, become acclimated to the East Coast, soon meet his third set of new teammates in a 10-day period after having played two games last week for Las Vegas, and care for his family. He said he isn’t sure when wife Angie will join him in Baltimore. She is expecting their second child late in July.
Watching from behind home plate Sunday afternoon, Peters said Wiggins “looked a little tight” in his Rochester debut.
“He looked a little rusty, but not too bad, all things considered,” he said.
A few minutes later, Wiggins singled sharply to center field--only to be thrown out stealing, as he was Saturday night. In Rochester’s 3-0 loss to Richmond on Sunday, Wiggins went 1 for 3, including a walk, and fielded well. He was much more relaxed, and Peters said plans for the new acquisition remain the same--he’ll probably join the Orioles Thursday in Kansas City.