New to third, O's Mora sees error of his ways

Orioles: After seven errors in his first 11 games, he's warming up to the hot corner.

May 05, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Yogi Berra had a theory about third base that seemed appropriate for Melvin Mora last month, as he struggled through his adjustment to the hot corner for the Orioles.

"Third ain't so bad," Berra once told Sport magazine, "if nothin' is hit to you."

Mora made seven errors in the first 11 games, leading some to wonder if the Orioles had erred when they handed him the third base position in the first place.

He made the All-Star team last year as a super utility player, a job that required him to play above-average defense all over the field. In 96 games last year, spent mostly in the outfield, he committed just two errors.

"That's the one thing I've been doing my whole career, playing defense," Mora said. "You're going to have a bad week or a bad month. You just need to forget about it."

But the Orioles were unwavering in their confidence, and with the season now in its second month, Mora is starting to play like one of the top offensive third basemen in baseball.

He still holds the major league lead with nine errors, but there are several signs that his defense is improving. And among all third basemen, going into last night, he was first in on-base percentage (.440), second in batting average (.362) and sixth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.962).

"It's never really been a concern for us," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. "We felt he could handle it. He's played there in the past. He's got the arm, he's got the foot speed, he's got the quickness - all the things that are important tools to play third base."

Flanagan had his own theory about third basemen last season, when he was helping craft the team's blueprint for free agency. Some of the best third basemen, Flanagan said, were at shortstop.

The New York Yankees helped prove this by trading for Alex Rodriguez - the American League's Gold Glove Award winner at shortstop - and moving him to third.

The Orioles had obvious holes at catcher (which they filled with Javy Lopez), shortstop (Miguel Tejada) and first base (Rafael Palmeiro). They also had a void at third base, but they gave the job to Mora, who hadn't played the position on a regular basis since 1994, when he was at Single-A Osceola in the Houston Astros' farm system.

Mora did have 192 games of big league shortstop experience, and Flanagan had seen several players make the move from shortstop to third.

In 1983, the Orioles won the World Series with a third baseman who had come to them from the Seattle Mariners as a shortstop. Todd Cruz made the switch, and though he made 13 errors in 79 games at third, he helped solidify the Orioles' infield defense.

In 1997, the Orioles went wire-to-wire in first place in the AL East with Cal Ripken in his first full season at third after 14 1/2 years at shortstop. Ripken set the franchise record for errors by a third baseman that year, with 22, but trimmed that number to eight the next year.

This spring, Ripken predicted it would probably take Rodriguez about 100 games to feel comfortable at third. That's what Ripken's father had told him when he switched infield positions, and as usual, Cal Sr. was right.

"A lot of guys start out at shortstop and end up over there [at third]," Flanagan said. "I think with Melvin, it's a little different because he really wasn't at any one position."

Mora came to spring training with a new set of expectations after signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract in January. The jitters seem to hit him in waves.

He completed a rare trifecta, making errors on the first ball hit to him in intrasquad play, exhibition play and regular-season play. But after a shaky start to the spring, he settled in and played pretty good defense, which is why the Orioles were scratching their heads when the problems surfaced again last month.

"It seemed like he came back here and felt like he had to prove it all over again," Flanagan said. "But we've believed in him all along."

Orioles fans are spoiled, of course. Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson is probably the best defensive third baseman of all time. The 16-time Gold Glove Award winner committed 21 errors in 1958, but just 11 in 1962 and nine in 1975.

Mora put himself on pace to break the Orioles' all-time record for errors in a season, 34, set by shortstop Willie Miranda in 1955.

After helping Mora with his footwork, arm angle and mental approach, Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo kept looking for answers. Finally, on April 7, Perlozzo noticed Mora had switched to a larger glove, like the ones normally used for the outfield.

They studied the videotape, and sure enough, Mora wasn't getting his glove open wide enough when he got to the balls. Still, Mora was stubborn about changing. He had been advised to switch to a bigger glove by his mentor, Cookie Rojas, as well as former New York Mets teammate Robin Ventura - a six-time Gold Glove winner at third.

But when Mora committed his fourth error of the season, in the season's fourth game, he trudged back to the clubhouse and grabbed the smaller glove.

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