McLemore is the right man for the job Move to outfield fills a big hole

May 02, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

On his way to batting practice the other day, Mark McLemore ran into Minnesota Twins center fielder Kirby Puckett, who was heading back to his cage from a stint in the Orioles' indoor batting cage.

And as baseball players are wont to do, Puckett engaged McLemore in some light-hearted banter about his new found prowess in the outfield.

"What's up, Mac? What's up, left field, right field, center field? What's next, man? You gonna pitch?" quipped Puckett.

No, pitching isn't in the offing for McLemore, but if he could handle throwing from the mound with the same aplomb which he's tackled the outfield, who knows?

"It's [playing the outfield] definitely getting me more playing time, " said McLemore. "If I wasn't able to play right, I wouldn't be able to get as much time as I've had."

Certainly, McLemore's desire and ability to learn a new position have given his career a boost, but those factors have also bailed manager Johnny Oates out of a jam.

The Orioles had hoped in spring training that a platoon of Chito Martinez and Luis Mercedes would solve their right-field woes.

But both came up short in their early-season tryouts and neither are on the roster, with Martinez being sent down to the Bowie Baysox, the team's Double-A farm club, and Mercedes traded late Thursday to the San Francisco Giants.

And while Sherman Obando has shown some promise in his infrequent appearances, it is clear that he would be in the minors if he were not a Rule V draftee and would have to be offered back to the New York Yankees, the team from which he was selected, for $25,000 if he were reassigned.

Enter McLemore, 28, who had spent the first four years of his career exclusively as an infielder, with nearly all that time as a second baseman.

McLemore, who was released by the Orioles after last season and re-signed for this year for $300,000, became an outfielder quite by accident.

As he and Oates tell the story, McLemore was shagging flies in the outfield before a game last September when the manager saw him and asked first-base coach Davey Lopes to hit him a few more.

"The first day I saw him catch fly balls off the bat, he was just out there shagging fly balls, but you could see he had great instincts for where the ball was," said Oates.

Oates continued, "The thing that really made it for me was when I saw [converted Oakland outfielder] Jerry Browne starting in center field in the American League playoff. I said, "If Jerry Browne can start for Oakland in a playoff game, Mark McLemore can start a game for me in July. If he could do it, I know Mac can do it."

Needless to say, McLemore was surprised by the call from Oates over the winter telling him to bring an outfielders glove to spring training.

"It [the outfield] is a little different, but a lot of it just came naturally," said McLemore. "There are still some plays that I have to adjust to, like the line drive hit straight at you or over your head."

But McLemore has done well, committing just one error in nine games in right field.

And the adjustment has had no effect on his hitting, as McLemore is in the most torrid streak of his career -- a seven-game hitting string going into last night's game with Kansas City.

Overall, McLemore is batting .311, second among team regulars to Leo Gomez, and is hitting .322 with runners in scoring position since he joined the Orioles last season.

"I don't really think about that [right field] when I'm hitting, because those are two different things," said McLemore.

Besides Lopes, McLemore said he took advice on converting to the outfield from only one other person, Detroit's Tony Phillips, who has revitalized his career by making the same conversion.

"That's the person I thought of when they asked me to play the outfield," said McLemore. "He's done it and done it well. What better person to get advice from than him?"

Who knows? Someday, someone might say the same thing about Mark McLemore.

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