FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It has been two years since Orioles shortstop Deivi Cruz reported to spring training with his entire focus on baseball. Two years since he has gone through a camp without grieving the loss of a teammate he never knew.

On Feb. 15, 2002, while home in the Dominican Republic, Cruz received a phone call from his agent, Elliott Vallin. The news wasn't good: San Diego Padres outfielder Mike Darr had been killed in an automobile accident. Cruz had signed as a free agent after five seasons in the American League and was waiting to report with the other position players.

The memory of that day came storming back to Cruz last Monday, when Vallin again reached him by phone. One day before Cruz was scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale, pitcher Steve Bechler died from complications related to heatstroke.

"Two years in a row," Cruz said yesterday, shaking his head. "The first thing I thought of was Mike Darr."

Though Bechler was a stranger to him, Cruz attended Wednesday's memorial service in the Orioles' clubhouse. Perhaps he could relate better than any of the other newcomers to the organization.

"I know those kids could play, and then they died," Cruz said. "Obviously, we don't feel like 100 percent right now, but we have to keep this guy in our hearts."

Darr's death affected the Padres all season. "Every day, we always remembered him," Cruz said.

If asked for his advice on coping with the situation, Cruz said he would tell the Orioles to "think about [Bechler] before we go on the field and work hard for him."

O's honor McDonald

The Orioles have chosen outfielder Darnell McDonald, a first-round draft pick in 1997, as their minor-league Player of the Year for last season.

McDonald ranked fourth in the organization with a combined .290 average at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Rochester. He had 10 homers, 50 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 128 games - the last 91 spent with the Red Wings.

Rated by Baseball America as the top position player in the draft, McDonald turned down a football scholarship to the University of Texas and signed with the Orioles after they made him the 26th overall selection.

Club officials have remained patient with him, excusing his slow development to the usual adjustments made by a high school player. But early draft comparisons to Rickey Henderson especially seemed absurd after McDonald, an intriguing combination of speed and power, batted .238 in 104 games at Rochester in 2001.

McDonald said it wasn't until he rediscovered his passion for baseball, which vanished after his mother died of a heart attack in 1999, that he began meeting his vast potential.

"This was a real important year for me," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that I was going through a hard time earlier in my career when I lost my mother. It was a situation where I lost my love for playing and questioned whether I even wanted to play again. But last year I started to have fun again. That love came back. And if you have fun, you're going to do well.

"That was probably the toughest thing I'll ever have to go through in my life, the most adversity. Now I just try to take the positives out of it and know she was part of my life for 20 years. That's more than a lot of other people can say."

The Orioles included McDonald on their 40-man roster this winter, and he's expected to begin the 2003 season at Triple-A Ottawa.

"It was an opportunity for me to show everybody why they drafted me," he said.

M. Garcia injured

Pitcher Mike Garcia suffered a cut on his left cheek after being hit by a thrown ball during a drill on one of the back fields.

Garcia held an ice pack against the side of his face as he walked through the players' parking lot. Dave Walker, the Orioles' minor-league medical coordinator, drove him to a local hospital as a precaution.

Garcia, invited to camp as a nonroster player, pitched for Yucatan of the Mexican League last year before signing with Rochester on Aug. 16. He held opponents to a .180 average in Mexico, and struck out the side in his Red Wings debut.

Around the horn

Omar Daal and Sidney Ponson will throw two innings apiece in Thursday's exhibition opener against the Florida Marlins in Jupiter. Manager Mike Hargrove hasn't decided which starter will go first. ... Geronimo Gil remains the starting catcher in camp, but Hargrove said he wants to use Brook Fordyce more this season. Fordyce appeared in 56 games last year, including five September starts. Gil, who batted .232 last season, hit just .208 after his average peaked at .300 on May 23.