18 years of numbers do lie about McLemore's real value

March 14, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Mark McLemore listened when the Yankees called this winter to say they needed a utility infielder to be their new Luis Sojo.

He listened to the Red Sox, too, when general manager Theo Epstein caught him attending to his twin businesses in Dallas: Mac's Auto and Video and McLemore Motors.

At age 39, with three kids and a wife with an interior design business, McLemore is set up for his post-baseball life.

A gadget lover and high-energy guy, McLemore could move on now. He could hook you up with stereo equipment. He's got an Austin-Martin he could sell you. Or, one of those $250,000 Lamborghinis he's driving these days.

But the best phone call this winter came from Lee Mazzilli. The former Yankees coach had seen firsthand, through many postseason games, what McLemore is all about.

The new Orioles manager said all the right things. That McLemore could play a lot. That Mazzilli needed McLemore, on the field, on the bench, in the clubhouse. McLemore liked what he heard - and saw.

"Look at the guys they got - Javy, Raffy, Miguel. These guys had won, and they know how to win. They had young guys here with talent, but they don't know how to win. It's kind of like a ship without a rudder. You want to go one way, but you don't know how to get there. That's why you have veteran players," McLemore said.

Rightfully, baseball fans in Baltimore and beyond have been busy ogling the pop and presence of $72-million shortstop Miguel Tejada. Sighs of relief have been breathed over the addition of Javy Lopez, who is in the heart of the batting order and behind the plate.

A lot of praise has been heaped on the Orioles' decision to bring back the beloved Rafael Palmeiro and the ever-amusing Sidney Ponson.

But where Palmeiro is a very measured leader, and where Tejada and Lopez might best set a winning tone on the field, McLemore fills a clubhouse vacuum left when Jeff Conine was traded last year to the Marlins.

McLemore brings an attitude born of 18 years of proving he belongs. It's not exactly a chip on his shoulder. That would be beneath him. It's more about attitude, determination, winning in spite of the odds.

McLemore has never been an All-Star. How can you be when you play six different positions - sometimes in as few as four games?

He's never won a batting title, not with a career average of .259.

He's never been a 30-30 guy. Never stolen 60 bases in a season. Never made headline news as a free agent who went from Anaheim to Houston to Cleveland to Baltimore to Texas to Seattle and now, back to Baltimore.

"My numbers don't really jump off the page, but the people who really know the game understand what I do, what I can mean to a team," he said.

What does he do? What does he mean? What's the best way to describe Mark McLemore?

How about indispensable? It's as rare a quality as any you'll find in baseball.

Coming back to Baltimore, where he played from 1992 to '94, he's come full circle. Not to the place his big-league career started, but where it turned - for the better.

"Johnny Oates changed me into the player that I am. He showed confidence in my abilities. It was the rebirth of my career. I had been in the big leagues five years, but I still needed to establish myself. He said, `Mac, I know what you can do. This is what I need.' Nothing negative," he said.

"I had been beaten up so much before, my confidence wasn't strong. But he helped me get strong mentally and you can have the muscles, the batting average, whatever, but it's the mental part that makes you or breaks you."

This is the backbone of McLemore's 18-year career. Eighteen years. He can barely contain a grin when he thinks about it.

"I'm proud. I'll be 40 in October, and I want to be in the playoffs. When I was 18 and 19, I was told I'd never make it out of Double-A."

If McLemore's career was reborn under Oates in Baltimore, it was recreated by Lou Piniella in Seattle.

After Texas lost three consecutive division series to the Yankees from 1996 to '98, McLemore was one of 11 players traded or not re-signed. He cut a deal with Seattle, a team McLemore used to kill when he played second base or left for the Rangers.

He was perfect for Piniella, who prizes veterans and versatility. Piniella found he could use McLemore in a most unusual fashion. In 2000 and 2001, McLemore played 138 and 125 games by starting or playing at any one of six different positions - second, short, third and all the outfield spots. He was virtually an everyday player who did not have an everyday position.

"Only thing I had to think about was which glove to bring out to the field with me," he said.

McLemore's presence in the lineup served as an important catalyst. He batted leadoff, second, ninth - getting 30 and 39 stolen bases in the two years the Mariners made it to the American League Championship Series, including the 116-win season of 2001.

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