If the glove fits, McLemore plays it

JOHN EISENBERG

March 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST.PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- His teammates are usually still dressing when Mark McLemore reaches into his locker for his outfielder's glove, as opposed to one of his two infielder's gloves, and heads into the morning sunshine to shag flies off the bat of coach Davey Lopes. He needs the extra work. New year, new position.

Where McLemore's day proceeds from there, and which glove he uses, is difficult to predict. He might need his new glove for the outfield, his old glove for second base or his slightly longer infielders glove for shortstop and third base. Among workouts, intrasquad games and exhibition games, he has played all three outfield positions, second base, short and third.

"As near as I can tell," he said after playing second yesterday, a day after playing left field, "catcher, pitcher and first base are the only positions I don't need to be ready to play."

Life used to be an awful lot easier. Until this spring, McLemore hadn't played any position other than second base since turning pro a decade ago. Now, the manager has him gallivanting all over the place.

The average major-leaguer might work up a substantive mad, or at least put in a call to Don Fehr, at the idea of such a sudden uprooting. But you won't hear McLemore complaining.

You don't complain when your career has included being released by the Indians and Astros within seven months, wearing nine uniforms in two years and experiencing the astonishment of not being offered a contract after what you thought was a productive season.

You do whatever the manager wants. With a smile.

"If there's one thing I know about baseball," McLemore said, "it's not to take anything for granted."

He is one of those players whom, it seems, the baseball gods have singled out to hammer home that idea over and over. Just when he thought he was settling into the Angels lineup in 1987, he lost his job and never got it back. After wandering the fringes from Canada to Mississippi, he finally found steady work again last year on the Orioles' second-base platoon. But after his best season in the bigs since Reagan was president, he was not offered a major-league contract.

It turned out the Orioles were just playing hardball, that they still wanted him, but on their terms. He quickly signed a minor-league contract that will pay major-league money if he makes the club. But the experience stung.

"I was upset, very upset," McLemore said. "It's not a good feeling to have, feeling like you're expendable. The only way to get past that point is to produce. I produced last year, but I guess it wasn't enough. So the goal becomes to produce more."

More, for McLemore, is going to mean more positions. Johnny Oates wants more options on his bench, and because he can't increase the size of the team, he's asking a few players to do more. McLemore, 28, is the centerpiece of the project.

Oates first mentioned it to McLemore toward the end of last season. "He walked by me one day during batting practice and said, 'Take some balls in the outfield,' " McLemore said. "I did a pretty good double-take."

Said Oates: "I think he thought I was kidding."

It was no joke. McLemore started shagging flies before every game, figuring it was just a late-season, pennant-race precaution. Then the Orioles signed Harold Reynolds to play second in December, and Oates told McLemore that the outfield, and the versatility it symbolized, was his future as an Oriole.

McLemore got serious. So serious that he had his wife hit him flies to get ready for spring training.

"Don't laugh," he said. "She's good. She could put balls right on the top of the fence in the back yard."

He had no outfield experience, mind you. But Oates has already seen enough this spring.

"To me, he looks like he's never played anything but the outfield," the manager said. "If we had a game today, I wouldn't hesitate for a second starting him in right field. The bottom line is he's a good athlete."

It's a startling turnaround, going from not being offered a contract to listening to the manager virtually guarantee you a job. Not that McLemore is surprised. Like most major-leaguers cast in supporting roles, he thinks it is only a matter of time until he makes the front line.

"I always think I'm going to play every day," he said, "whether it happens or not."

Meanwhile, he just shows up every morning with his three gloves and waits to hear which one he gets to wear.

"My job," he said, "is to do whatever the manager wants."

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