ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Non-roster infielder Mark McLemore could have made things easy on the Orioles front office. He could have come into spring training and fallen flat.
Instead, he has come in and proved himself to be a solid role player. He is going to force manager John Oates and the club into a difficult decision.
Oates said at the outset that two of the three utility candidates would make the club's 25-man regular-season roster. Tim Hulett appears to be a lock, but McLemore and Juan Bell remain in limbo, as the club moves into its final week of Grapefruit League play.
McLemore got a rare start in the leadoff spot yesterday and had two hits, as the Orioles played to a 12-inning, 1-1 tie with the Boston Red Sox at Al Lang Stadium. He now has 10 hits in 22 exhibition at-bats, and his .455 average is the highest of any
Orioles player with more than 10 at-bats.
"He did very well," Oates said. "He's continuing to play very well."
Bell also appeared in the game, going hitless in two at-bats, dropping his preseason average to .216. He had a chance to establish himself with the major-league club last year and was not impressive, but remains alive in this year's utility competition.
Why? For the same reason that he remained in the major leagues in 1991. He is out of options, and the club will risk losing him if it attempts to waive him to the minor leagues.
McLemore has clearly had the better spring so far, but he is no lock to make the team. Bell is the last holdover from the Eddie Murray trade, and he is a promising shortstop who could come back to embarrass the team if it gives up on him.
It may not seem fair, but performance isn't always everything. Oates may want McLemore to accompany the team to Baltimore. He has proved he can produce in spot situations. He has two pinch hits in four opportunities. He is an older (27) and steadier than Bell. But this decision probably will be made higher up the corporate ladder.
"I'll make recommendations," Oates said yesterday, "but there are some decisions that are out of my hands. There might be something I want done that won't get done."
He will not come right out and say where he stands on the McLemore/Bell question. That could set up a potentially embarrassing situation for both himself and the organization if the final decision goes the other way. But he has made clear that McLemore has done everything he has been asked to do this spring.
McLemore must know that he is not dealing from a position of strength. He can be sent back to the minor leagues. He already has been released by two of the worst clubs in baseball -- the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros. While there might be more to this competition than meets the stat sheet, he will not get involved in the debate.
"One of the things I learned when I was competing with Johnny [Ray] in California, I can't take my mind off what I have to do," he said. "I still don't think about it. I can't take one minute to wonder what the decision is going to be."
Take it from one who has been through the roster wringer a few times before. McLemore was the second baseman of the future with the California Angels, until that club traded for Ray and pushed McLemore into the background for a few more years. By the time he surfaced again, he was fighting for his professional life. Still is.
This could be his last stand, but he isn't looking at it that way. He is looking at this as the opportunity that came along at the right time. He has regained his confidence and has been able to make HTC his talent known in snippets of playing time this spring.
"I have to keep my mind right and ready," he said. "I've had to adjust to some things. Today, I was a starter, but I come to the park every day thinking I'm going to be a starter."
His presence in the leadoff role was not particularly significant, said Oates, but McLemore made the most of it anyway. He singled twice in four at-bats and also brought home a run with a sacrifice fly. It was just another chance to show what he can do, and he responded.
"He just seemed like the best person to put up there of the personnel in the lineup," Oates said, "but there was nothing wrong with getting a look at him up there. He did very well."
It has been that way all spring. Now, it is up to the Orioles to decide if McLemore will get a chance to do the same things when it counts.