JUPITER, Fla. - To Orioles hopeful Mike Kinkade, his career is defined by two dates, one representing his release from an untenable position and the second his reward for escaping it.
Viewed by the New York Mets as a player blessed with an ability to play several positions but unable to transport his offensive success in the minor leagues to Shea Stadium, Kinkade mentally circled last July 31 as the most important day of his season. If he awoke Aug. 1 still with Binghamton, the Mets' Double-A affiliate, his season would be a failure regardless of whether he won the Eastern League batting title. If the waiver deadline resulted in his being somewhere else, his season was a success.
"The whole point to last year was to get traded. I was talking to [Mets manager] Bobby Valentine before the season started and he knew the whole thing was to get traded. I'm not going to say anything bad about them. It just wasn't a fit for me there," Kinkade said.
Kinkade, 27, could do anything for the Mets except get a chance. He caught almost every day at Binghamton but could also play left field, first base and third base.
At every position, the former All-America catcher at Washington State found himself stymied. The Mets were in the midst of winning a National League pennant. A year after batting .308 at Triple-A Norfolk, Kinkade found his reward a chance to win a Double-A batting crown.
"The whole year I was playing for that deadline," he said.
His liberation arrived July 28 when the Orioles sent pending free-agent shortstop Mike Bordick to the Mets for a four-player package that included Kinkade and utility player Melvin Mora.
Which brings Kinkade to his next date: March 31 in Atlanta.
On that day Kinkade will hear whether he's part of the Opening Day 25-man roster, something he accomplished in 1999 with the Mets only to be exiled after 1 1/2 months. Leading indicators suggest he is in a good position. Cal Ripken's rib injury has allowed Kinkade significant time at third base. Kinkade has hit the ball hard consistently. And he is out of minor-league options, meaning the Orioles risk losing him to a waiver claim if he fails to go north with the team.
"People come up to me and say: `You're in a good spot. You can play a lot of positions and can hit.' I hear that all the time. I don't know if it's good or bad. I always wondered if I stuck with one position if I could've made it quicker. But I'm really glad I got a chance to play a lot of positions at this camp. They've given me an opportunity. Hopefully, it will work out here," Kinkade said.
Kinkade shows little emotion, perhaps because he has become callused by a game that has answered his successes by handing him more hurdles.
Twice Kinkade has driven in 100 runs in a minor-league season. He was named the Double-A Texas League Player of the Year in 1997 after hitting .385. In six minor-league seasons he has never batted below .300 while constructing a career .505 slugging average.
He received a sliver of opportunity in 1999, when he broke in with the Mets. But that chance evaporated after he hit .196 in 46 at-bats, including a 1-for-21 skid. The Mets considered themselves contenders that year, and neither the front office nor Valentine was interested in granting extended auditions.
"I got an opportunity in '99 and I struggled. I went something like 1-for-20," he said. "When you have only 46 at-bats or so, the numbers aren't going to be that good. I got called up two or three times after that and never saw the field."
Last year, Kinkade was optioned to Double-A without a look in spring training. He then circled July 31 and prayed for a parole. Mets general manager Steve Phillips granted his wish.
"If you're blocked, they will do something for you on a personal level to get you an opportunity," Kinkade said. "I think Steve Phillips is great. The whole organization is great that way. He'll try to help you while helping the team along the way."
The Orioles inherit a player with both advanced numbers and elevated age for a rookie. His abilities duplicate those of veteran Jeff Conine, who is available for trade.
"My goal every year with the Mets was just to get better. That way, I don't feel I got cheated as a player," Kinkade said. "I wanted to learn as much as I can about the game, little things to do right. A lot of it's frustrating. This game is largely based on failure, and you have to deal with that. If you can learn from it, you can make yourself a better player."
Kinkade has receded from a scorching start but is still batting .286 with 11 RBIs and a team-high five home runs. Numbers can lie in spring, just as they have previously lied to Kinkade about his future. But the Orioles believe what they have seen. "You don't just look at numbers," said manager Mike Hargrove. "You look at the quality and the consistency of a player's at-bats. How often does he hit the ball hard. And so far, Mike Kinkade has been hitting the ball hard a lot."
Catcher. Third base. Left field. Kinkade has visited them all this spring. One week before the next significant date of his career, the roving batsman is hearing good news.
"Right now," Hargrove said, "he's in a good position."