SARASOTA, Fla. -- Last September, roughly two years since he’d last been in uniform, Jeff Conine flew north from his Weston, Fla., home, just for the day. The destination? Baltimore, its jewel of a ballpark, the one that still holds an outsized place in his heart. An itch had been
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Last September, roughly two years since he’d last been in uniform, Jeff Conine flew north from his Weston, Fla., home, just for the day. The destination? Baltimore, its jewel of a ballpark, the one that still holds an outsized place in his heart. An itch had been building in Conine to get back in the game. And that night, it grew under the lights at Oriole Park.
“When anybody asks me my favorite place I ever played, I always say Camden Yards,” Conine said.
“It was odd being there as a fan and sitting in the stands and watching from that perspective.”
Flash forward to early this week, when Conine jogged onto the back fields of the Orioles’ Ed Smith Stadium complex for the first time, draped in orange and black. One of the club’s two new guest instructors this spring (the other, J.J. Hardy, arrives March 2), Conine plans to relish the week he spends in O's camp. He also hopes it begins the process of paving a new path back to the field in some fashion.
“Baseball was my life forever and I’m grateful to be back in uniform. I still fit into one, so that’s good,” Conine said. “I miss being in-between the lines a lot. The relationships you make in the clubhouse are what every retired player will say they miss the most. I want to be out here and involved with the guys themselves.”
Across Conine’s three-plus-decade career in pro baseball, doing so has taken several forms. A 58th-round pick of the Royals in 1987, he overcame long odds to become one of the more versatile and respected players of his era, eventually playing 17 seasons for the Marlins, Orioles and four other clubs. Six of those seasons came in Baltimore, serving as a valuable utility piece on star-studded but losing O's teams from 1999-2003 and '06. Conine made two early career All-Star appearances and won two World Series titles with the Marlins, then returned to Florida post-retirement to work in a hybrid broadcaster/advisory role from 2008-17.
South Florida was where he first connected with now-Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, then a Minor League coach in the organization. After Hyde was promoted to the big league staff in 2010, he and Conine were around each other often. Hyde went to the Cubs in 2013; Conine left the Marlins four years later. He’s devoted the time since to family, much of it spent keeping tabs on the progress of his son Griffin, now a highly touted Blue Jays prospect.
“He was blue-collar, such a good player,” Hyde said. “He brings a lot of knowledge of the game, having played multiple positions, played for a long time on good clubs. You bring in a guy who was a winning player, I want guys to soak it up.”
That could be particularly valuable in a camp that could be accurately defined, at this early stage, by its excessive versatility. Of the 24 healthy non-catcher position players in camp, at least 16 are expected to get work at multiple positions this spring. At least nine could conceivably see time in both the infield and outfield, including No. 4 prospect Ryan Mountcastle. As a player, Conine made more than 900 appearances in both.
“I’m here to lend whatever knowledge I accumulated over the years,” Conine said. “That’s what I know. I’m a baseball player.”
Some early observations on the versatility front:
• The Orioles have grouped Mountcastle with the outfielders during their first two full-squad workouts, but also provided time for Mountcastle to get individualized corner infield work on Tuesday. Both will remain a priority, as Mountcastle is expected to see time at third base, first base and both corner outfield spots this spring. Hyde said work at second base, which general manager Mike Elias floated as a potential option this winter, is not scheduled for Mountcastle.
• Second base is the position where Richie Martin spent a good chunk of Tuesday’s drills at, and will probably be where the second-year infielder gets the most work as he fights for a bench role. The right side of second base isn’t foreign to Martin -- he did so often in shift situations last season while technically playing shortstop. But with José Iglesias signed to start there, Martin’s clearest path to the roster is as a backup middle infielder. Hyde said Martin won’t see much time at third, just second and short.
From the trainers’ room
While they remain held out of full-squad workouts due to illness, Trey Mancini and Hunter Harvey both resumed light baseball activity Tuesday. Hyde said he expects both to participate in Wednesday’s workout.
Athletes & artists play for kids
The Orioles will host their fifth annual “Athletes & Artists Play for Kids” charity weekend at Ed Smith Stadium from March 5-8, which strives to bring O's players and Nashville artists together to support music education. The weekend will include performances from Grammy-nominated country artists Jordan Schmidt and Jimmy Robbins, free community workshops and the Margaret Valentine-hosted “Nashville Music Row Comes to the Ballpark” VIP charity event, which has helped raise over $400,000 since its inception. A portion of this year’s proceeds will benefit the Orioles Charitable Foundation’s Music & Arts Education Scholarship.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.