A happy ending is starting to feel right for McLemore

March 12, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- It would be fair to suggest that Mark McLemore's story has reached an unlikely happy ending, except that, of course, this isn't the ending. But it sure is happy.

Three years removed from a spectacular career down spiral that had him playing for nine teams in four organizations in 18 months, he has a million-dollar contract, a job as the Orioles' everyday second baseman and, last but not least, (in fact, last but ahead of everything else) two young children to whom he is hopelessly devoted.

What's wrong with this picture?

Why, absolutely nothing.

"I can't complain," McLemore said yesterday, standing on the field at Dodgertown before the Orioles played the Lasordas.

For the first time since 1988, when he was a rising star with the Angels, he isn't competing for a roster spot in spring training. In the six years since then, he has played in Palm Springs, Edmonton, Colorado Springs, Cleveland, Houston, Tucson, Jackson (Miss.), Rochester and Baltimore.

At a couple of points along the way, such as when the Indians and Astros released him, he came close to crossing the boundary beyond which players get lost forever.

"I was closer to that than I'd ever want to be again," he said. "I know I'm going to appreciate this [having the job] more than most."

He has it because of his breakthrough '93 season, in which he hit .284 with 72 RBI and played an adept right field after moving there from second base when the Chito Martinez/Luis Mercedes platoon fell apart.

His average was 55 points higher than his career average, and his RBI total was within sight of his career total. Everyone was surprised -- except McLemore, who had maintained that he deserved to play.

"It was just a matter of getting the chance, and playing for people who believe in me," he said.

When it became clear in the off-season that Jeffrey Hammonds was healthy, meaning McLemore no longer was needed in the outfield, the Orioles had a choice to make at second: McLemore or Harold Reynolds.

McLemore, four years younger, was the clear winner, even though the Orioles thought Reynolds was perhaps a smidgen more sure-handed.

"I made it clear who I wanted," manager Johnny Oates said. "Harold did a good job last year, but you can't turn down a guy who drove in 72 runs for you."

Especially when you can pencil him in as the No. 8 hitter in a lineup as potent as any in baseball.

Anyway, the Orioles still had to get McLemore's name on a contract. They did so after a series of negotiations that got testy at the end.

"No matter where I wound up, I figured I was going to be in the lineup every day," McLemore said. "When you have the kind of year I had, you can figure that."

In the midst of the negotiations, two weeks before Christmas, McLemore's wife, Capri, gave birth to their second child, a boy named Darien Tremmell. Their first child, a girl named DeMarca Shea, had been born 16 months earlier.

Ballplayers live such public lives that sometimes it is easy to forget how young they are; McLemore is middle-aged for baseball at 29, but still young enough to go dreamy-eyed at the joys of new fatherhood.

"It's awesome, that's the only word I can use," he said.

"Nothing in baseball comes close to comparing to it. My kids love me because of who I am, not what I do. And when you come home after a game and your daughter comes running up to you holding out her arms, that's the best feeling in the world."

McLemore brought along his wife and daughter on most road trips last season because he couldn't stand to be away from them. So much for the cliche about the hard-living ballplayer going wild when he escapes the nest. Hey, it's the '90s, right?

"You don't see many guys doing that, bringing along their family, but I'm not many guys in this case, I guess," McLemore said. "For me, it helped to have them along last year. People wondered about me getting sleep with a baby in the room, but my daughter was a great sleeper."

Oates said: "The money in today's game has made it possible for players to bring their families along. I think it's great. If I'd made that kind of money in my day I would have done it. I like to see it."

It worked so well for McLemore that he says he's going to do it again, even though there are now four mouths to feed. Talk about an entourage.

Add it all up, and you've got a classic portrait of success: family, job, financial security, the whole works.

Of course, now comes the toughest part, holding onto the job he worked so hard to get. The year after a breakthrough season is always critical to a career.

"I fully expect to keep right on going," McLemore said.

0 Not that he wants to budge from where he is.

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