Ledesma turns shot into spot Orioles: Called up from Triple-A to fill a bit role, castoff Aaron Ledesma has become a major player -- for a first-place team, no less.

September 11, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Even within a quiet clubhouse, Aaron Ledesma's presence is noticeably understated. On the road, he sometimes lockers next to Cal Ripken. At home, he is assigned the cubicle next to closer Randy Myers, whose verbal sparring is almost as dangerous as the stun gun he keeps in his space. Ledesma grins and bears it because it's the rookie thing to do.

Ledesma's July promotion from Triple-A Rochester represented a footnote to a club that has led its division from Day 1. But as October approaches, Ledesma's role has become much more than as a bit player.

Bruised and battered second baseman Roberto Alomar has not played more than six innings in any game since July 29 when he strained his right groin muscle. Alomar tried to return Aug. 26 only to aggravate the injury. He returned again Monday, but is not only considered day-to-day but inning-to-inning. No one within the organization can safely predict what he will bring to the postseason.

In his absence, Ledesma has emerged -- a castoff from two organizations unable to reconcile his ordinary defense with a line-drive bat. He carried only 56 days of major-league experience into his eighth professional season yet enters tonight's onset of a four-game series with the New York Yankees hitting .343 in 70 at-bats.

"I'm trying to learn from each experience. I try to get the most out of each game and each at-bat," says Ledesma, scratched only minutes before Tuesday night's game in Cleveland when Alomar was deemed ready to play. "But after the game, I try to leave what I've done in the game in the clubhouse.

"That's something I've picked up being around these veteran players. It's a long season, and even though I've only been here a couple months, I've been playing Triple-A, too, and that's the mentality you have to have to play this game."

Ledesma has looked patient at the plate and unhurried in the field. At 26, he no longer can be seen as an awed fresh face.

"There's no question I feel comfortable. When I go out on the field, these guys are counting on me," he says. "I'm not somebody they hope can step up. They're counting on me to produce."

Having started 12 of the past 22 games, this is an especially important time for Ledesma. He nears the age when teams have typecast talent. Selected by the New York Mets as a shortstop in the second round of the 1990 draft, he received only 21 major-league at-bats before being traded to the California Angels before the 1996 season. Ledesma's future in New York became expendable when the Mets signed Cuban shortstop Rey Ordonez, a sensational fielder who had been doggedly pursued by numerous clubs after defecting.

But even before his trade, Ledesma chafed at being designated a utility player.

"Mentally, I wasn't ready for that," he says. "But I learned. Now I realize the best place to play is the big leagues. If being a role player is what it takes to be in the big leagues, then I'll be a role player."

With California, he never received a promotion despite hitting .305 at Triple-A Vancouver. Expecting no more visibility with the Orioles, he signed with them last winter as a minor-league free agent.

Ledesma brought minimal expectations to Fort Lauderdale this spring and they weren't exceeded. He hung in major-league camp for barely two weeks, received occasional playing time and was routinely dispatched to Rochester.

The off-season signing of veteran Jeff Reboulet had filled the vacancy for a utility infielder. Veteran reclamation project Kelly Gruber started the season next in line at Rochester.

Not that there was thought to be much need. Cal Ripken plays every day. Rafael Palmeiro plays almost every day. And grinder Mike Bordick was signed as a defensive presence at shortstop.

"You figure it takes a couple years within an organization to be recognized and for people to really know what you can do," he reflects. "This spring, I really didn't get a shot. It was just a matter of doing something at Triple-A."

Even when Alomar started the season on a sore right ankle, manager Davey Johnson decided to keep only one spare infielder in order to maintain a 12-man pitching staff.

"I knew I was going to spend the year at Triple-A," Ledesma says. "I just wanted to have a strong year there. This has been a bonus to me. It's been a nice bonus. I never really expected to be called up this year. I was hoping in September but not a whole lot more."

Ledesma says he takes nothing for granted. Asked about the possibility of making the postseason roster, he says he tries not to think about it. Yet asked about his designation as a career utility player, Ledesma stirs. "I understand it. But I'll never be able to accept being without a position."

In his fourth year at Triple-A and third in the International League, Ledesma stood out for the Red Wings. He was batting .325, fourth in the league, with 43 RBIs in 85 games when the Orioles decided to release designated hitter Pete Incaviglia on July 14 with the club in its most distressing downturn of the season.

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