Man of moods, Mora sets tone

Wearing a smile or a scowl, emotional Melvin Mora is the expressive face of the Orioles - for at least one more season.

March 01, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Slumped down in his chair after a hard day of work, he starts off slowly, measuring every word in a hushed tone.

Then, the words start to spew from Melvin Mora's mouth, gaining decibels with each sentence. His face contorts, shifting from smile to scowl at a moment's notice, and his mood appears to fluctuate as often as his tone.

Mora, an All-Star third baseman and the longest tenured member of the club, may not be the face of the Orioles' franchise because Miguel Tejada is more celebrated and Brian Roberts is probably more revered by fans. But a case - a good one, in fact - can be made that Mora is the player who has become the franchise's voice, a voice of strength and humility and, above all, emotion.

"He's always a guy that you can come to for an answer and he's going to give you an honest answer all the time," Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "We see the mule lip every once in a while when he's sad. His lips just drop. He's a face of emotions. But he's a fun guy to have in here."

On one afternoon earlier this week, after more spring training monotony, Mora had a lot on his mind as he sat at his locker. A day earlier, he had pulled out of the World Baseball Classic, saying he was disrespected by Venezuelan officials, who asked him to switch to center field.

The decision clearly bothered Mora, who is intensely proud of his Venezuelan heritage. He sulked through that day's workout, his shoulders slumped and his lips pursed, his nonstop bilingual chatter that usually reverberates around Fort Lauderdale Stadium nowhere to be heard.

"Over the years, he's got some facial expressions that get pretty easy to read sometimes," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "But that's OK. We talk about guys expressing themselves and not being clones out here."

The decision to pull out of the WBC followed a chaotic offseason for the 34-year-old, who played part peacemaker, part recruiter for the organization.

Mora was the lone current Oriole to attend the memorial service of beloved coach Elrod Hendricks, who died in December. Players were criticized by the local media for the poor attendance, while Mora was lauded. He didn't want it that way.

"I am not worried about them," Mora said. "I am here because I care about Elrod."

When it came time to sell the franchise to free agents this offseason, Mora "has been consistent from Day One when it came time to convince players to come here," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said.

"I talk to them and tell them that this is a good organization," Mora said. "I have a lot of friends, Bobby Abreu, Magglio [Ordonez], Richard [Hidalgo], Freddy Garcia, Johan Santana. I tell them that `You should take your first chance to come here.' They treat me here good, and I know they'll treat them good."

Mora's most convincing work, however, came after Tejada asked for a trade in early December. In public comments, Mora sided with his close friend and urged the front office to make the additions that the Orioles needed. But in near-daily phone calls in the ensuing days, Mora talked to Tejada, selling him on the club's agenda and telling him he needed to be patient.

"I think he is one of the best teammates I ever had in my career," Tejada said. "He's been a good friend to me. I think that's why he helped me."

On Jan. 7, after a month's worth of dialogue with his friend, Mora brokered a phone call with Duquette and Tejada that led to the All-Star shortstop's rescinding his trade demand. "If Melvin didn't get involved in that situation," said one club official, "who knows what would have happened?"

However, Mora's days as an Oriole might be nearing an end.

He is about to enter the final season of a three-year, $10.5 million deal that he has outperformed. (Five Orioles will make more money than Mora this season.) Mora has said that if a contract extension doesn't get completed during spring training - and the two sides remain far apart - he will most likely test free agency.

Mora, lest there be a misunderstanding, wants everybody to know that he'd like to finish his career in Baltimore. He is one of the few Orioles who lives year-round in the Baltimore area, and he is extremely active in several local charities, but Mora said he won't let that dominate his decision on where he'll play next year.

"If I walked away tomorrow for free agency, I'd still love the Orioles," said Mora, who hit .283 last season with a team-high 27 home runs and 88 RBIs. "Wherever I am going to be next year, my wife supports me 100 percent. But the only thing she tells me is, `You deserve a lot of things, and if you have to go, you have to go.'"

Mora remembers the 2003 All-Star Game as if it were yesterday. He was the lone Orioles representative, and he got a chance there to converse with owner Peter Angelos, who was seated behind the plate.

"He would look at me, I would look at him, and I would point [to my Orioles logo] and say, `Smile. I am the only Oriole here,'" recalled Mora, his mood quickly shifting from sullen to upbeat. "I was just joking around, and I don't know if he understood what I was saying. But he wants to win because I see it in his face.

"That's why I try to bring the best people I can to this club. I know that he wants to do something special for this team. Wherever I am going to be next year, I want to make sure that I have a ring on my finger before I leave."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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