Mark McLemore came to spring training looking for an opportunity, but he didn't know until yesterday whether it was real or imagined. He has been through this before.
The Orioles offered him a chance to make the club as a utility infielder. They offered him a chance to prove he could still be the solid all-round player that made him one of the hottest prospects in the California Angels organization a few years ago. They offered him a chance to keep his baseball career alive, but not until yesterday could he be sure the offer was sincere.
Yesterday, the club announced that utility infielder Juan Bell had cleared waivers and was assigned to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings roster. McLemore didn't get an official handshake, but the ramifications were obvious. He had earned a place on the 25-man major-league roster.
"In my opinion, that's just what he did," manager John Oates said. "I couldn't have looked him in the eye and said, 'Mark, you didn't make it.' "
McLemore was the clear winner in the competition with Bell for the final utility job. He batted .393 in exhibition play and performed well in the role that Oates had laid out for him at the start of spring training.
"He's had a very good spring," Oates said. "I just feel comfortable putting him in the ballgame."
This is comforting to McLemore, who played for nine major- and minor-league teams over the past two years. He had gone from being the second baseman of the future with the Angels to being released by two of the worst teams in baseball, the
Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros.
Even though he knew that Bell was out of options and almost certainly would win the job if the competition was close, McLemore predicted he would make the team the first week of full-squad workouts. It was not cockiness. He knew what it would take to win this job because he finally had figured out why he didn't win the others.
"I put a lot of work into it," he said. "I know what my weak points have been in the past. I knew I had to work on them to make this club, or any big-league club."
The formula for success was a combination of mental discipline and hitting mechanics. He forced himself to forget the competition, forget statistics, forget everything but playing the game. He had already worked out the flaws in his swing during the winter, with the help of a new backyard batting cage and some pointers from batting coach Greg Biagini.
"He gave me things to work on," McLemore said. "That's been my problem in the past. I'd go into a prolonged slump and I haven't always had a lot of help getting out. But Greg is here. He's a hard worker. I know he's watching, knowing what I need to do."
No one can argue with the results so far. McLemore had the highest Grapefruit League average of any Orioles hitter with more than 20 at-bats. His defensive ability has never been in question. Now, he just wants to stay in the right frame of mind.
"This wasn't something just to get me through spring training," he said. "I'm going to work even harder. It feels good to finally be needed -- not just to be here. I know I have a job to do here, and it's a great feeling."