Orioles are lucky McLemore still here

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 27, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Think maybe now the Orioles will invite Mark McLemore to spring training as a member of their 40-man roster?

They didn't last season, encouraging McLemore to pursue other offers, then reluctantly re-signing him to a minor-league contract.

And they didn't this season, risking the loss of McLemore as a free agent, then giving him the same type of non-roster deal.

Before club officials start congratulating themselves for McLemore, they should be grateful he wanted to stay. Otherwise, they easily could have lost the player who has been their first-half MVP.

McLemore, 28, patterns himself after Detroit's Tony Phillips, another switch-hitter who took years to develop. Phillips is a better hitter and even more versatile, but he couldn't help but notice his alter ego when the Tigers were in town.

"These guys released him, for heaven's sake," Phillips said, referring to the Orioles' failure to offer McLemore a contract last winter. "That fires me up. That is awesome.

"You hear about superstars, but this guy here -- I have more respect for Mac than a lot of superstars. He's been knocked down, beaten down. He's been with so many stinking teams.

"Then, when he did have a good year last year, he got beaten down again -- they busted his bubble and released him. But he bounced back.

"He deserves everything he gets. I enjoy following him. I enjoy guys who battle, who don't have it come easy."

That's McLemore.

He underwent two operations on his throwing arm in 1989, and the California Angels quit on him as their second baseman of the future. Later, he was released twice in six months -- by Cleveland and Houston, then two of the worst teams in baseball -- before the Orioles signed him to a minor-league contract July 5, 1991.

His transformation began at Triple-A Rochester. Orioles hitting coach Greg Biagini, then the Rochester manager, took one look at the 5-foot-11, 207-pound McLemore, and decided he was too strong to be a slap hitter.

Biagini urged McLemore to drive the ball to the gaps and helped him make the necessary adjustments. "It took awhile to get it out of my head," McLemore said of the slap-and-run approach. "I had 10 years of that."

The difference now is tangible. McLemore already has 17 extra-base hits, two fewer than his total from 1987, his only full major-league season. As an Oriole, he has batted .319 with men in scoring position. And he has more than twice as many RBI (36) as Joe Orsulak (15), the club's previous right fielder.

Biagini wasn't the only one to help McLemore: Manager Johnny Oates talked about moving him to the outfield the day the Orioles signed second baseman Harold Reynolds, and coach Davey Lopes helped him refine his base running and learn his new position.

Still, McLemore did so much of this on his own. All the adversity could have soured him, but instead of turning bitter, he developed into the perfect team player, willing -- and able -- to play any role.

The other night, McLemore chased a ball into the right-field corner and made a strong throw to hold Mickey Tettleton to a single. Such plays aren't occurring by accident. They're the result of McLemore's off-season work with martial-arts expert Mack Newton.

McLemore, who lives in Phoenix, trained with Newton two hours a day, five days a week. Newton formerly was a conditioning coach for the Oakland A's. Under his tutelage, McLemore improved not only his throwing, but also his mental approach.

"He's a great speaker," McLemore said. "A lot of it's psychology. I took notes, and I go over them all the time. There's more to it than just positive thinking. It's controlling your thoughts, concentrating."

But that wasn't the extent of his preparation. One night, he spotted Phillips, a casual acquaintance, at a Phoenix Suns game. "I asked him how he kept his arm from getting tired with the different throws you make from the outfield and the infield," McLemore said.

It turns out McLemore has played only one position, but who knows what the future will bring? Reynolds is a free agent after this season. As well as he's playing, it's doubtful the Orioles would re-sign him at a likely price of $2 million.

McLemore, now earning $300,000, easily could wind up the full-time second baseman. The Orioles don't figure to keep him in right field, where they can either add an expensive power hitter or commit to Jeffrey Hammonds.

Whatever, Mac will be back.

This time, for sure.

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