O's, Mora on opposite sides of fence he's swinging for

Player sees dollars in HRs

team cites falling average

March 05, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Melvin Mora has a dream.

Instead of serving as the Orioles' super utility player or their perpetual 10th man, he's their everyday center fielder. He's a powerful presence in their lineup, and his strength helps propel the team back to the top, putting him in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, when he was a New York Met.

"If you play me in one position every day," Mora said, "I can hit .270 with 80 RBIs and 30 home runs."

The Orioles appreciate Mora's desire and admire his resolve, but they have an entirely different view of his ideal role. They see him as a table setter who's not afraid to lay down a bunt, sacrificing power numbers for average. However, Mora, in his quest for an everyday starting job, has tried to morph himself into a home run hitter.

For Mora, it all goes back to a conversation he had last year with Orioles third baseman Tony Batista.

"I used to hit .290 or .295 with six homers," Mora said this week. "I never got a chance to play. I said to myself, `What do I have to do?' I was talking to Tony, and he said, `If you want to play, if you want to make money, you have to drive in runs. You have to hit for power.' "

Mora hit 19 home runs last season, which was quite a spike, considering he had never hit more than eight in any of his previous 10 professional seasons.

Something else changed, too. After entering the season as a .259 career hitter, his average dropped to .233. Mora thrust himself into the Orioles' everyday leadoff role and was one of the team's top players for three months, but after the All-Star break, he hit .195.

He had 18 home runs entering September, and using an upper-cut swing, he looked as if he were on a mission to reach 20 for the season. With the team in a tailspin down the stretch, Mora hit .137 over the final month.

"Melvin's not a power hitter," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "He had 19 home runs last year; in today's game, that's not a power hitter. Twenty years ago it was, but today it's not. Melvin's game is using the whole field, getting on base any way he can, bunting the ball, and scoring runs.

"In talking to him, he was saying his approach was to try to hit the ball out of the ballpark - a lot, especially the second half of the season. I think that the results were obvious to everybody."

Still, there was a payoff for Mora.

After making $350,000 last season, Mora was eligible for arbitration for the first time, and his salary for this season rose to $1.73 million.

Fans might cringe when a modern-day athlete talks about the need to make more money, but Mora's is a special case. He has six children now, including a set of quintuplets, and the medical bills are high. He also gives money back to his family in Venezuela.

Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley, a former bench player himself, probably understands Mora's situation as well as anybody. But Crowley said he wants all of his hitters to place a greater emphasis on team-based fundamentals this season: bunting and situational hitting.

"I'm not trying to say Melvin didn't do that last year," Crowley said, "but we will be better."

In 2001, Mora led the Orioles with 17 bunt hits.

Last year, he had one.

"In his defense - and I'm always going to defend my hitters - the first baseman and third baseman were breathing down his neck," Crowley said. "The opportunities to bunt were not great."

Mora has spent extra time this spring on his bunting and said he plans to make it a bigger part of his repertoire. In yesterday's 11-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins, Mora went 0-for-2, popping out to shortstop and flying out to left field. For the spring, he's still batting .364.

Hargrove has said that, ideally, with the rest of the lineup healthy, Mora would start about two or three times a week this season. The Orioles have talked about trading Mora this spring, but teams have told them he's too expensive at his current salary. The Orioles know he'll still be a hot trade commodity at the waiver deadline, especially for National League contenders.

Mora said that's out of his control, just like the everyday lineup decisions.

"I know Mike Hargrove has a tough job," Mora said. "There are a lot of good players here. I'm just going to do what I can do, and we'll see what happens."

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