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Taking Wing : Orioles’ Anderson Is Off and Running

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somewhere around the 300-meter mark, Brady Anderson was wondering if this was such a good idea after all. Circling the bases is exhilarating. Circling the track was turning out to be a wholly different experience.

Nauseating seemed the right adjective at the moment.

“Let’s just say the 400 meters is not the most fun race there is,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of pain involved. I started to die around 250 meters.”

OK, so what’s a Baltimore Oriole outfielder doing running in an all-comers track meet at Cal State Long Beach in the first place? Doing pretty well, that’s what. He finished third in the 400 in 52.4 seconds, and after his stomach settled a bit, he won the 200 in 23.4.

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Anderson, a former UC Irvine standout who lives near The Wedge in Newport Beach with Angel second baseman Rene Gonzales, has been training during off-seasons with former Irvine decathlete Steve Odgers for five years.

This winter, he decided to trade his spikes for spikes and give the local track circuit a go. It was everything he expected . . . and more.

“People can’t understand why I’m doing this, and I don’t understand why they ask that question,” Anderson said. “Track athletes are not big, huge athletes, but they’re really strong, and that’s what I wanted, the strength without the bulk.

“I love the workouts. I feel like I’m getting something done, and I feel like I’m improving myself for baseball. And running the 400 in competition, well, that’s got to make you tougher, mentally and physically . . . if you survive.”

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Odgers, now the White Sox strength and conditioning coach, won the 400 at Long Beach. He pointed out that the meet wasn’t exactly the “major leagues of track and field,” but he said Anderson’s victory in the 200 is a considerable feat, especially when you consider he doesn’t even use starting blocks.

“Brady’s got the talent to compete in track and field if he worked at it, but he’s doing it for the fun and competition,” Odgers said. “Mainly, he’s out here working to develop the strength and speed of a sprinter so he can apply it to baseball.”

Anderson’s father, Jerry, competed in track at UC Santa Barbara, but Brady never ran in any kind of meet until last weekend. He played baseball and basketball at Carlsbad High School and went to Irvine because no one else offered a scholarship.

“I didn’t really start developing any speed until my senior year in high school,” Anderson said. “I didn’t gain much strength until I was in college and I kept getting faster every year in college.

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“I’m sort of a late bloomer. I grew an inch when I was 21 and I don’t think I shaved until I was 20.”

Anderson didn’t exactly take the fast track to the big leagues, either. And it wasn’t until he stopped shaving--his sideburns--that he started getting noticed at all.

A late bloomer, to be sure, but some kind of a blossom.

Nineteen ninety-two was a season of very nice numbers for Anderson.

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First, they tossed zip codes at him because of his facial-hair resemblance to Luke Perry of “Beverly Hills 90210.” He didn’t mind. After all, you don’t make yourself look different in hopes of anonymity.

He also began to earn recognition for his talents as a player. For the first time in his five-year major league career, Anderson put it all together: the swing, the speed and the defense.

He transformed himself from the first outfielder in history to survive four seasons in the majors with a batting average of .231 or lower to the first American Leaguer to have at least 20 home runs, 75 runs batted in and 50 stolen bases in the same season.

He won the job as the Orioles’ leadoff hitter and starting left fielder in the spring, played in the All-Star game and finished with a .271 batting average, 21 homers, 80 RBIs and 53 stolen bases.

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Then came the really nice numbers. Anderson, who played for $345,000 in 1992, recently signed a one-year deal for $1.85 million.

“Not bad, huh?” he says.

How did this happen?

“You could put a gun to my head and I couldn’t answer,” Baltimore Manager Johnny Oates said.

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Whether he knows it, Oates played a key role.

Anderson stole nine bases in the spring, climbed a couple of fences to pull home runs back into the park and hit well enough to persuade Oates to put him in the lineup on opening day.

“It’s hard to explain,” Anderson said. “You’re asked to pinpoint reasons for success and it’s something that develops over a period of years. But one thing is for sure, Johnny Oates gave me the chance.

“I remember he came to me about 10 days before the opener and said, ‘I need you in left field every day and I’m thinking about having you as my leadoff hitter.’ ”

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Oates also mentioned that he wouldn’t mind if Anderson played the leadoff role a bit, too. Bunt every so often. Maybe go to the opposite field once in a while. But it wasn’t long before he realized that Anderson’s aggression was his greatest asset as a hitter and a baserunner.

It was some kind of revelation.

Anderson had five more home runs at the All-Star break than he had total in his first four major league seasons.

“Johnny Oates gave me the ability to use my abilities, to realize that if the count’s 2-0, I should be swinging, to use my ability to pull the ball, to use the freedom on the bases.

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“I just need to feel like I’m not confined, I guess.”

It took awhile to find his way, but Anderson is lost no more. Why did it take so long?

Ironically, the speed he had worked so hard to achieve had been holding him back for most of his professional career.

Baseball scouts saw only a left-handed hitter who could outrun a lot of ground balls, but refused to hit down on the ball. And they did everything but hang a sign on him: Talented but Stubborn.

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Anderson was signed by the Red Sox in 1985 and his batting average hovered around .300 as he made his way through the minors. In April of 1988, he became Boston’s starting center fielder when Ellis Burks was injured. He started 41 of 49 games before a three-for-36 slump sent him spiraling back to the minor leagues.

In July, he was traded to the Orioles for pitcher Mike Boddicker. He spent the next four seasons struggling at the plate and bouncing back and forth between the Orioles and their farm clubs.

“I know it’s frustrating for managers and coaches to have a player who they believe is not getting the most out of their ability, but they have to understand that it’s even more frustrating for the player,” Anderson said. “I’m the one that has to go home and live with the disappointment of not succeeding.

“I think part of the problem with the Orioles was that they had never seen me play in the minors. The Red Sox knew I wasn’t a slap hitter. They had me hitting third and fourth.

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“And you know what’s funny? They label you as stubborn, but I really tried to do everything they asked. I tried to do everything they taught me. Now, I wish I’d been more stubborn.”

When hitting instructors talked, Anderson listened. . . and sometimes tried not to laugh.

“I’ve heard some really ridiculous theories about hitting over the last four years,” he said. “The contradictions are amazing. They harp and harp on going to left field and then get mad if you don’t pull a ground ball into the hole between first and second when there’s a runner on first. You want to say, ‘If I was that precise, I wouldn’t be working with you to begin with.’

“Sometimes, you just need to be left alone.”

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It’s unlikely anyone will be messing with Anderson’s swing when he reports for spring training this year. Unless, of course, they happen to have seen some of the action from the MTV softball game he played in last week.

“My first four swings in batting practice, I didn’t get the ball out of the batter’s box,” he said. “It wasn’t funny, man. I had a lot of friends there. Three foul tips and a miss. I couldn’t believe it.”

No one’s calling him stubborn anymore, but the MTV game could provide Anderson with a new label: Fast But Not Too Quick.

“I was way out in front in batting practice so during the game I decided to stay back and go to left. So I hit two line drives to left to Barry Bonds, staying away from the dreaded Dweezil Zappa in right.”

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