Signed and sealed, Mora wants to deliver

Contract angst in past, he seeks to rebound - and win

March 09, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The only tolerable part was watching his Venezuelan countrymen, guys whom Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora refers to as his brothers. For that reason only, Mora picked up the remote in his Fallston home and turned on the playoffs, no matter how painful it was.

The New York Mets' Endy Chavez and the Detroit Tigers' Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez took their turns as October playoff heroes, while Mora relived the sting of another disappointing season.

It wasn't considering his statistics that hurt so much - even though they dropped significantly in just about every category - it was the Orioles' familiar place in the standings and that he'd have to wait another long offseason to do anything about it. It has been seven seasons since Mora was on a playoff team, but it hasn't gotten any easier to accept.

"I had a good year last year," Mora said, pushing aside the numbers. "It wasn't a sensational year, but I had a good year. But for me, it's kind of like nothing because we were eliminated. Win. That's all I want. Of course, to win, I have to put up numbers to help the club. That's the main thing. If you are looking for money, I have it. If you are looking for my numbers, I've put up numbers before. But the main thing is to win."

Stability, security

Mora is the longest-tenured Oriole and the organization made sure it would stay that way by signing him to a three-year, $24 million deal last May. That ended months of negotiations that included a face-to-face meeting between the player and owner Peter Angelos and nearly daily media interviews on the topic.

The extension was applauded by fans, who had witnessed Mora transform himself from a light-hitting utility man to an All-Star third baseman. It didn't hurt that he had become one of the public faces of the team.

But last season, that face was often a dour one. He was hurt to have to withdraw from the World Baseball Classic after Venezuelan team officials wanted him to play the outfield. He grew annoyed at times with the constant talk about his contract along with the length of time it took to get a deal done. And a second-half slump - both for the team and himself - left him frustrated.

The losing blues

"To me, the contract talk seemed to weigh on him more than anything else," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "Early on, it may have drained him unnecessarily. My feeling on it is once we got the contract done, he had a letdown and didn't seem to be able to get himself going. ... He was not unlike any other person in the club when he was struggling. But he tends to show it on his sleeve more than others."

Mora, who turned 35 last month, finished last season with a .274 average, 16 home runs and 83 RBIs. The home run and RBI totals were the lowest since the 2003 season, when he played 96 games for the Orioles. The batting average was the lowest since he hit .233 in 2002, and you'd have to go all the way back to 2001 to find a lower slugging percentage than the .391 he posted last year.

At first, he said he wasn't affected by the contract talk, but acknowledged later it had the potential to become a distraction.

"I don't worry about anything like that. I had five kids in an incubator in the hospital after they were born, and I still played baseball," said Mora, whose wife gave birth to quintuplets during the 2001 season. "What worse thing than that can happen to me that makes me feel pressure?

"But yeah, it can be a distraction. You don't want to hear, `You're signed, you're not signed, you're not signed, you're signed.' Some people told me that I should have waited until this year because the [free-agent] market went crazy. But I am happy with whatever they give me. I am staying next to my family. That's what's important."

Easy does it

Mora has enjoyed a much lower profile this spring, content to stay in the background of a clubhouse loaded with new faces. He decided not to play winter ball and said he still has a way to go before he reaches Opening Day form.

However, he has looked very sharp in the batter's box this spring, hitting .333 with a team-leading six RBIs in five games.

"I think he had a lesser year [in 2006] than he was capable of, but it happens to guys," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He's still a great player, and I fully expect him to rebound a little bit more and add a little more production for us. I am not concerned about him."

Mora doesn't sound overly concerned about himself either.

"I don't want to look at it specifically, that it could be a good year for me. I look at it as everybody needs to have a good year," he said. "What are you going to do if you have a good year and other people don't? The team is going to be bad and you're going to be in last place. I hope everybody has a good year. When I say everybody, I mean everybody, even the batboy."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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