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Royals catcher Ortiz offers rare stability

By BRUCE LOWITT and Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 27, 2000

The Royals haven't had a full-time catcher since manager Tony Muser took over the team midway through the 1997 season. He has had Mike Macfarlane, Sal Fasano, Tim Spehr, Mike Sweeney and Chad Kreuter, among others. This year Muser has called on Brian Johnson, Gregg Zaun, Jorge Fabregas and Hector Ortiz.

Muser may have found his full-timer in Ortiz, whose hitting appears to have caught up to his catching.

Even in the minors, Ortiz usually was a backup catcher, and he played more than 100 games in just one season. So he kept playing winter ball in Puerto Rico to get in more games and at-bats. "All I wanted to do was show people I could handle the bat," he told the Kansas City Star.

He also did some serious dieting and work in the weight room. He has dropped 25 pounds, down to 200, over the past couple of years.

With Johnson released and Fabregas on the disabled list, Ortiz has shown fortuitous timing. He's a 30-year-old rookie with 121/2 years of minor-league experience. Players like that often don't get a second chance.

"He's got an above-average arm. He blocks balls well. I like the way he sets up," said Jamie Quirk, who coaches the catchers. "Now that he's getting a chance, he'll be considered a major-league catcher rather than a minor-leaguer. And he's improved his hitting 1,000 percent the last couple of years."

He was hitting .322 (73-for-227) in 68 games for the Royals' Triple-A Omaha Golden Spikes when he was recalled. In Ortiz's first two games with the Royals, against the Tigers and White Sox, he had six hits, three of them doubles, and scored five runs.

After years of hitting in the low .200s, Ortiz broke through last year at Triple-A Albuquerque, a Dodgers farm club, batting .305 in 55 games.

"Mickey Hatcher was the hitting instructor, and he made a couple of changes in my stance," Ortiz said. "I was leaning in; he straightened me up, which gets my hands through the zone better."

After re-signing with the Royals last winter, Ortiz was tutored by hitting coach Lamar Johnson in spring training. "Lamar told me to take an early step, so I've got plenty of time to see the ball," Ortiz said. "I put everything together, and it's worked for me."

SUMMER CAMP: The Royals signed pitcher Jared Camp, a hard-throwing right-hander, to an Omaha contract. Camp, 25, worked out for two days with the Royals in Chicago to give pitching coach Brent Strom a chance to study his mechanics.

"He's a guy that's always had a good arm" and exceptional speed, but he has to make adjustments in his delivery, general manager Allard Baird said. "All the way up to 98 (mph), he's got a power arm. But if you don't pitch with it, it doesn't do you much good."

Camp was Milwaukee's fifth-round draft choice in 1995. His best minor-league season, in 1996 with Class A Watertown, N.Y., was 10-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 952/3 innings.

He has barely had time to unpack the past seven months.

Camp was selected by Minnesota from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft Dec. 13 and was quickly traded to Florida. After spring training, the Marlins decided not to keep him on the major-league roster and returned him to the Indians, who sent him to the minors and later put him on waivers.

He was claimed by Texas, placed on waivers again and released. Now Kansas City has added to his itinerary. "I really haven't had a chance to pitch much this year because of all the changes," Camp said.

THE ODD COUPLE: Monday night in Chicago, two honorary first pitches were thrown before the Royals batted -- the first by Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie, then Hank Bauer, former Yankees star who managed the Baltimore Orioles to the 1966 World Series championship.

Bauer threw a one-hopper from the mound. "Rotator cuff," he said, pointing to his shoulder.

THE FIRST OF MANY?: Jason Fingers, son of retired relief ace Rollie Fingers, secured his first professional save in the Royals organization, concluding a 3-1 win for Class A Spokane on Sunday. ETC: Outfielder Johnny Damon was one of 19 baseball players in the Sporting News' annual list of "100 Good Guys" in professional sports. ... Right-hander Chris Fussell threw 60 pitches in three innings Monday night for Omaha and had no problems with his right elbow.

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