O's Bellinger is man of many positions

An all-star of versatility, former Yankee just wants a spot, any spot, with O's

Baseball

March 17, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - Give Clay Bellinger a little credit for recognizing talent and the limitations of his own.

"I was never a superstar," he said, "so I never put up great numbers at one position."

Maybe this explains why Bellinger has played so many of them.

Signed by the Orioles to a minor league contract in January, Bellinger is trying to make the club as a utility infielder. And a part-time outfielder. And a right-handed designated hitter. And an emergency catcher.

He'll pretty much do anything except pitch and roll out the tarp during rain delays.

Since breaking into the majors in 1999, Bellinger has played 51 games at third base, 36 in center field, 32 in left, 26 at first, 22 at second, nine at shortstop and seven in right. His versatility kept him on the New York Yankees' roster for parts of three seasons. It's his only hope for returning to the majors after spending last year at Triple-A Fresno.

"I knew I had to change something if I was going to stay in the game," said Bellinger, 35, a second-round draft pick of San Francisco in 1989. "I figured if I could play any position, if somebody got hurt or needed a day off, they could say, `Well, we'll just put Bellinger in here.' It kept me in New York for three years, and hopefully it'll work out this year.

"I have no idea what's going to happen. But when a manager has a player on his bench that he can put at any position at any time, I think that's a plus."

Drafted as a shortstop, Bellinger evolved into a third baseman until 1994, when he was the first player at Triple-A Phoenix to appear at every position. "One day in the outfield," he said, "one day in the infield."

The Orioles signed Bellinger with the intention of sending him to Triple-A Ottawa, but there's a certain appeal to keeping him. In 13 exhibition games, including yesterday's 10-2 loss to the Florida Marlins, he has played third base, left field, shortstop, right field and second.

Shifting around isn't the problem. The trick is moving Mark McLemore off the roster.

McLemore signed with the Orioles after Bellinger agreed to a minor league deal, and he brings the same qualities - except for better offensive skills. Bellinger never has batted higher than .207 or driven in more than 21 runs - stats he accumulated over 98 games in 2000.

Factor in the need to keep Rule 5 draft pick Jose Bautista on the roster all season or offer him back to Pittsburgh, and the odds are stacked a little higher. Bautista is a third baseman who also can play second and the outfield. He started in left Monday.

"It depends what direction we want to go," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Bellinger's in the mix."

"I came here originally because I thought there would be an opportunity," Bellinger said. "That was before they signed McLemore. He basically does what I do. That hurt a little bit. And they've got a Rule 5 kid who played A ball last year, so that kind of hurts, too."

It might help that Bellinger has a history with Mazzilli, the Yankees' first base coach until the Orioles hired him.

"He was the 25th guy who could play all over," Mazzilli said. "He could pinch-run, as well. If I'm not mistaken, he went a stretch of a week or so when he played center field when Bernie [Williams] was down."

It probably didn't occur to the Yankees, or Bellinger, that he could have replaced Jorge Posada, too.

The Giants informed Bellinger during spring training that he would serve as a second catcher in Fresno, and his first four appearances came behind the plate.

"I was kind of surprised when they asked me," he said. "It's one thing to catch an inning here and there, but for me to go in and catch nine innings, that was different. But I looked at it as a challenge. And it worked out pretty well for me. I think I did a fairly good job."

Bellinger played at least three games at every position with Fresno except center field and pitcher. He batted in every spot in the order, and set a career high with 16 homers. But he stayed in the minors after appearing in only two games with the Anaheim Angels in 2002.

Another demotion at spring training this year will test Bellinger's desire to remain in baseball. His family lives in Arizona, including three children ages 11, 8 and 4, and being in Ottawa brings little appeal.

"Doing the Triple-A thing, it's going to be tough. But if I have to, I'll go up there to start out and see what happens," he said.

"The best advice I ever got was, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That's what I've always gone by. I don't want to put any extra pressure on myself, but that's a huge thing for me. I've just got to go out and play the way I can and do the things I can do. For me, it's all in the hands of the man above."

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