Saturday, March 13, 1999


Bowden looking at Rays' reliever

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hints of talks between the Reds and Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been dropped recently, which could mean General Manager Jim Bowden is coveting Albie Lopez again.

        Lopez, the starter-turned-reliever who Bowden pursued when he was a Cleveland Indian, enjoyed his best season last year while working exclusively out of the bullpen for the first time (7-4, 2.60 ERA in 54 games). The 27-year-old righthander has been bothered by a pinched nerve in his neck and hasn't pitched in any exhibition games, though he threw batting practice to Devil Rays teammates Friday morning.

        The Reds also could use a lefthanded reliever, since Gabe White is their only lefty in the bullpen. The Devil Rays have seven lefthanded relievers in camp, but none of them is particularly accomplished and most, such as Tim Davis, Erik Plantenberg and ex-Red Norm Charlton, are major-league retreads. It may or may not have been coincidence that Davis and Charlton pitched in Tampa Bay's 5-2 victory Friday over the Reds.

        Tampa Bay has plenty of excess infielders and outfielders and probably wouldn't want any of the players the Reds have been dangling (Hal Morris, Jon Nunnally, Jeffrey Hammonds). But Devil Rays scouts have been following the Reds steadily since Tuesday.

        HONEST JOE: The wear and tear of catching for 10 years in the major leagues hasn't eroded Joe Oliver's candor.

        The former Red delivered a blunt self-assessment, criticizing himself for ballooning to 250 pounds and adopting a cavalier outlook.

        “This winter was kind of a wakeup call. I had to keep calling the operator to make sure my line wasn't disconnected,” said Oliver, whose failure to command interest as a free agent prompted his attitude adjustment.

        Now, Oliver is scrambling to stay in the majors — and succeeding. On a team with Jose Canseco and Wade Boggs, Oliver is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' leading hitter in exhibition games, batting .467 (7-for-15) with two homers and three RBI.

        Incumbent catchers Mike DiFelice and John Flaherty have the best chances of making Tampa Bay's season-opening roster. But Oliver, who signed an unguaranteed $350,000 contract as a non-roster invitee, has clearly played his way into contention.

        Losing nearly 25 pounds has helped.

        “Last year was tough,” said Oliver, 33, who began the season with Detroit and finished it with Seattle. “I took the wrong way about it. Instead of working harder I kind of ate my way out of Detroit.”

        But there was nothing fat about his .225 batting average, which dipped his career mark to .248.

        “I decided to rededicate myself to taking baseball seriously,” said Oliver, who wants to lose five more pounds. “I decided if I wanted to play another two or three years, I would have to get back at it and not take things for granted like I had the past couple of years.”

        Was Oliver, who played for the Reds from 1989-94 and in 1996-97, disappointed that the Reds didn't reacquire him?

        “Yes and no,” he said. “I'd love to be there. I'm a Cincinnati Red inside and out. But it's a different game nowadays. They're looking for cer tain things and I just didn't fit in their plans.”

        BACK TO SCHOOL: Sean Casey fulfilled a goal this offseason by receiving a degree in speech communications from the University of Richmond (Va.). Casey's college education was interrupted in 1995 when Cleveland drafted him in the second round.

        Casey returned to school in the autumns of 1995, 1996 and last year.

        “I just wanted to finish what I started,” said the Reds first baseman. “My parents were real big on education and I thought it was an important thing. ... (But) it was weird. None of my friends were there. I just tried to fit in.”

        ETC. The Reds optioned righthander Rob Bell and catcher Jason LaRue, two of their brightest prospects, to minor-league camp after Friday's game.

        • Outfielder Adam Dunn, last year's second-round draft pick who doubles as a quarterback at the University of Texas, will spend his spring break working out in the Reds' major-league camp for a week starting Wednesday.


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