Despite being far from home, O's Mora finds way to be safe

February 25, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sometimes when you talk to Melvin Mora, you wonder if he wasn't dropped on Earth to remind us all to take a chill, to have a good attitude, to establish a reservoir of unshakable faith that diffuses anger toward heaven, where some other force will help out.

This is the power of Melvin.

Sometimes you wonder if the Venezuelan utility man wasn't sent here to prove that a person can balance serenity with competitive fire, sensitivity with strength, respectful reserve with fetching personality.

Oh, the power of Melvin.

Please, if the Orioles don't do something silly like package the versatile Mora in a trade for that bigger bat they need, let Mora play every day, Mr. Hargrove. We can't get enough of the impish but sturdy player whose nature reassures us that humanity does indeed have tremendous upside.

No, Melvin Mora did not go to Venezuela this winter. He did not return home to be near his mother, Phillipa, who gave birth to 11 children but has only 10 left after last April, when son Jose was shot by thugs outside their house on Santiago Road and died in his mother's arms.

"These killers hang around outside," Mora said. "They think I have money so they are around there. I have a different house that I want my mother to go to, but she says, `Fix this house up,' even though there are bad guys hanging around. I say, `Mama, listen, we have to get out of here.' But she doesn't want to leave. This is the place where she watched her son die. She doesn't want to leave him."

No, Mora did not go home to the country where 25 years ago, when he was 6, he also lost his father to senseless violence. A gunshot dropped his father to the street, where he died in Mora's arms.

And, no, Melvin Mora could not return home to Venezuela, even though his winter league team, Magallanes, so badly wanted Mora to come play and he was willing to leave his wife and six children -- including those 18-month-old quintuplets -- in Bel Air for one month, enough perhaps to lift Magallanes to the playoffs.

"They called twice in November. I wanted to go. They were losing and they needed me to come, but there was talk about a strike. People didn't know what was going to happen. Then there was a strike. It happened Dec. 2," Mora said.

The paralyzing national strike led thousands of people, rich and poor, to the streets to protest the rule of President Hugo Chavez. By Dec. 22, as the unions and university professors continued to march, shutting down the oil industry and prompting international companies to leave the country, the president of the Venezuela Professional Baseball League shut down the country's beloved baseball.

"You'll hear `Play ball!' only when we can guarantee the quality of the game and the safety of the players," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.

They never could guarantee safety.

"It's never been this bad," Mora said yesterday. "This is crazy. People were running out to get food before it ran out. A lot of people died, and then you don't know about those other people who disappear.

"One of those dead people is my brother. The police work with the bad guys. All they have to do is give the [police] some money and that's it. They let you go. There is so much corruption. If you have no power, nothing they want from you, you have no chance. You can't live like that.

"I think about this every day when I go to sleep. I just think I don't want to get a phone call and hear bad news. If your mother sees her son die in her own hands, this is too much. They pay $100 to kill someone. ... I cannot accept someone paying for murder. The police might take money to let you get away, but you never live in peace. I have God on my side. One thing he says, do not kill. I pray for me and my family. I believe in him."

And we also believe in Melvin.

This spring, with B.J. Surhoff rejoining the Orioles, the outfield is already crowded with Marty Cordova, Gary Matthews and Jay Gibbons. In the infield, where Mora plays second base and shortstop, veteran free agents Jeff Reboulet and John Valentin are in camp battling for roster spots. Jerry Hairston established himself at second last season and this spring. Brian Roberts is also getting a good look. It's pretty clear there's less wiggle room for manager Mike Hargrove to use Mora the way he did last season, when Mora wheeled the diamond, filling in for whoever was injured -- and that was almost everybody.

In 149 games, Mora played five different positions. Now, though, Hargrove is talking about starting Mora two or three times a week. Mora accepts this because he is dutifully diplomatic. Still, he wants to change that forecast.

"I had 19 homers last year, I walked 70 times, scored 86 runs and was third for on-base percentage on this team," he said. "I love to play this sport. I came out of nowhere [to help the New York Mets in the 1999 and 2000 playoffs] when I had no pressure on me. I cannot sit in the dugout when I think I can help the team win. I like to hit from any spot -- 6, 5, 9 or 1 -- wherever they want to put me. Of course, I would like to hit No. 2 and start in center field every day."

For him, you wish this could happen.

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