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Mike McFeely column: Bittiger may lose dual role

Jeff Bittiger is 40 years old. He has nearly 200 victories and 2,000 strikeouts in a minor-league career that stretches back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Jeff Bittiger is 40 years old. He has nearly 200 victories and 2,000 strikeouts in a minor-league career that stretches back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

He had four cups of espresso in the major leagues.

He, along with Doug Simunic, is one of the people who's put a recognizable face on the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. Think of the RedHawks, you think of Simmy, the manager, and Bitt, the pitcher and pitching coach.

Well, OK, you also think of the hot tub. Warm sunshine. Cold beer. Fans wrasslin' over cheapo giveaways hurled into the stands.

But you get the idea. Bittiger's résumé is not one you question.

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Yet as the RedHawks begin their seventh season at Newman Outdoor Field tonight, you should know that Bittiger is on a short leash in this, his 23rd year of professional baseball.

If he is able to perform, he will pitch every fifth day.

If not, we'll have seen the last of the rotund right-hander dealing to Northern League batters.

"It's proven that I can be successful when I'm out there," Bittiger said. "The fact is, I haven't been out there enough the last few years. I need to do it this year. If I don't, my dual role will probably be finished."

Immediately.

It will be Jeff Bittiger, pitching coach. Period.

Age and nagging injuries have played havoc with Bittiger since the dream season of 1998, when he went 12-1 with a 1.94 earned run average in leading the RedHawks to a championship.

That season, Bittiger started 16 games and threw 97Zc innings.

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In 1999, those numbers dipped slightly to 15 starts and 74 innings.

By 2000, it was down to 10 starts and 51 innings.

And last season, Bittiger started just eight games and pitched 35Zc innings.

No matter how effective Bittiger was in those eight starts -- 2-1 with a 4.58 ERA, for the record -- that simply isn't enough production.

Bittiger, you see, takes up a veteran roster spot under Northern League parameters. Those four valuable positions are supposed to be held by players who produce big numbers in the middle of the lineup or hold down the ace's perch in the starting rotation.

Stars. Go-to guys. Big kahunas.

Not pitchers who contribute eight starts and 35Zc innings.

"From a veteran spot, you need more than just the last month of the season and the playoffs," Bittiger said. "That's what we're trying to do. I feel I need to go out there every five days and be a solid guy."

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Bittiger said there hasn't been any special off-season conditioning or spring workout program to get him ready for the season. He hasn't dropped any significant ballast from his listed weight of 215 pounds.

He said, however, that he threw more this winter than last. He believes that, and making the proper adjustments to his pitching style (allowing for increased age and decreased velocity), will be enough to get him through the season.

"I'll have to call on everything I have mentally, experience-wise and physically to get the job done. But I look at it as a great challenge," Bittiger said. "If you look at my winning percentage and numbers with the RedHawks, I am 34-11. Being effective isn't the issue. The issue is being able to get out there every fifth day. I've discussed it with Doug and Bruce (Thom, the team's owner) and the issue is being a regular contributor. If that doesn't happen, then it's over."

Readers can reach Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com

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