BASEBALL / JOHN LYNCH : Buford Flies From Oriole Nest to Roost in Big Apple
Talk about leaving the nest.
When the Baltimore Orioles traded Damon Buford to the New York Mets, he not only left the only organization he had played for in his six-year career, he said goodby to his father.
Buford, a former Birmingham High and USC standout, moved to the Mets on July 28 in the deal that brought Bobby Bonilla to Baltimore. Buford was traded though his father, Don, is Baltimore’s assistant director of player development. By the time Don contacted his son, this bird had flown.
“The trade came out of the blue, but my dad sees it as an opportunity,” Damon said. “He’s my dad first.”
Father knows best in this case. The trade has boosted Buford’s lagging career. One moment, he’s a 25-year-old outfielder marking time in triple A, the next he’s in a major-league lineup.
Buford, a 1987 Birmingham graduate, opened the season with the Orioles, his third stint in the big leagues. But after playing sparingly and ineffectively, Buford was sent down to Rochester on June 3. After leading the International League in runs with 89 in 111 games the year before, Buford felt he had little to prove in triple A.
“It was hard to swallow because I felt I belonged in the big leagues, but I was really struggling when they sent me down,” he said.
In 46 games at Rochester this summer, he batted .309 with 40 runs and had stolen 17 bases in 21 attempts. For the second year in a row, Buford was named the International League’s best defensive outfielder by Baseball America.
The Mets noticed and asked for him and minor league outfielder Alex Ochoa for Bonilla.
“We’ve always liked Damon,” said Jim Duquette, the Mets’ assistant director of minor league operations. “He has above-average speed, is above average defensively and is a guy who may come along with the bat.”
The Mets are taking a hard look at Buford. He was inserted into the lineup immediately after the trade, playing left field and batting eighth. In his first 10 games, he was batting .296 with two stolen bases. Two days later, when Brett Butler left the team because of the death of his mother, Buford moved to center field and the leadoff spot.
Buford may keep that job for a while following Butler’s trade to the Dodgers on Friday. Still, Buford will miss Butler. While still a Met, the veteran leadoff man had taken a jittery Buford under his wing.
“The first couple of games I was nervous,” Buford said. “I felt like it was spring training all over again. But it was great to be around Butler. I sat next to him on the bench and talked to him in the outfield. I learned more from him in the past two weeks than I have in the last couple of years.”
Buford, whose average has dropped to .196 through Friday, hopes he has found a permanent home in the New York outfield. His father has other plans. Don, a member of the Orioles’ Hall of Fame, wants his son to return to the nest.
“We talk every couple of days and he’s happy for me now,” Damon said. “But he reminds me that when I become a free agent I can always come back to Baltimore.”
Derek Wallace did a double take. Not only was the former Chatsworth High and Pepperdine pitcher traded for the second time this season, he was traded with the same player.
“When the players first told me about the trade in the clubhouse, I thought they were kidding,” Wallace said.
But it was no joke. For the second time in less than four months, Wallace and fellow right-handed pitcher Geno Morones were shipped together, this time on July 21 to the Mets’ organization for two minor-league pitchers.
In April, just before spring training, Wallace and Morones were traded from the Chicago Cubs to Kansas City in a deal that brought Brian McRae to the Cubs.
After last month’s trade, Wallace and Morones, who were assigned to double-A Binghamton, soon parted company. When Morones suffered a stress fracture in his elbow, he was shipped back to Kansas City. Wallace is now living alone in a three-bedroom house in Binghamton trying to sort out what the trades mean to his career.
“Trades are one of those baseball things; you have to take them in stride,” he said. “It is somewhat difficult and I have mixed emotions, but I’ve got to set my mind to work and try to get to the big leagues.”
Wallace, who turns 24 on Sept. 1, has struggled since the Cubs made him a 1992 first-round supplemental pick out of Pepperdine. He was 2-9 with eight saves and a 5.74 earned-run average for double-A Orlando in ’94. Before the trade from Kansas City to the Mets, he was 4-3 with six saves and a 4.40 ERA in 26 games for double-A Wichita. At Binghamton, he has one save and no record in nine relief appearances with a 5.79 ERA in 9 1/3 innings.
Still, the Mets like his above-average fastball and he might be a September call-up.
“From the start here was a guy we really wanted,” Duquette said. “His ceiling is high. He’s still at double A, but guys who had seen him at Pepperdine like his arm and arm strength.”
Dmitri Young’s 30-day suspension from the double-A Texas League for punching a fan has been upheld by major league baseball.
The 21-year-old outfielder from Rio Mesa High won’t be eligible to play for the Arkansas Travelers until Aug. 27.
Young was suspended Aug. 1 after he entered the stands and punched a fan who, Young said, had made a racial slur.
Young appealed the ruling last week and played in six games until the commissioner’s office upheld the penalty Thursday. The Texas League will reduce the penalty to 20 days providing Young performs community service.
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