Shaky status with at-bats ranks as old hat for Millar

It's recurring plot in story of veteran's career

March 18, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- It was Derrek Lee during Kevin Millar's four-year stint with the Florida Marlins, Doug Mientkiewicz and John Olerud in his three seasons as a member of the Boston Red Sox, and Javy Lopez and Jeff Conine in his first season as an Oriole.

Millar, who was undrafted and kept his major league dreams alive in the independent Northern League, is used to it. There is always someone else, someone who is reputed to be better and more deserving of at-bats.

These days, it is Aubrey Huff and Jay Gibbons, both of whom, like Millar, play first base and left field and can and will be used as designated hitters. Barely a day goes by at Fort Lauderdale Stadium when Millar isn't asked by a reporter where he fits in with the group.

So on this day, before a reporter even finishes posing the first question, the 35-year-old Los Angeles native offers a wide smile.

"This whole situation makes us all laugh," Millar said. "There are going to be 450 at-bats available for the 10th guy on the team. That's the way it is. There will be at-bats for everybody. No one knows what's going to happen on March 12."

No, but there have been plenty of signs given out by Perlozzo. The Orioles' manager has already said Jay Payton will play the majority of games in left field and Huff will be an everyday player, most likely at first base.

Though club officials caution it is still far too early for a lineup to be cemented, that would appear to leave Gibbons and Millar sharing DH duties.

Millar, who hit .272 last season with 15 home runs and 64 RBIs, didn't sign a one-year, $2.75 million deal with the Orioles to sit on the bench. He's been an outfielder, first baseman, third baseman, designated hitter and even an emergency third catcher over his career, but bench player is one role he's never embraced.

"I haven't had a staff member come up to me and tell me that I'm not playing this year," Millar said. "I don't expect not to play every day. I expect to go out and swing the bat like I'm capable and find a way to be in the lineup. Period. This all works itself out. It's fun to write articles and guess who is going to be where, but it always works itself out."

Until it does, much of the focus will be on Millar, a veteran who is praised for his work in uniting the clubhouse, but whose demeanor can change if his name is not written on the lineup card.

"When I'm not playing, I can be a pain in the [butt] to a manager and [Perlozzo] has told me that," said Millar, who was 0-for-3 yesterday in his return from a forearm injury and is now 1-for-15 this spring. "I've never known any different. I want to play every day. I've never made that a secret. That's my mentality, my makeup."

Is there a time when that can become disruptive? Millar says no and challenges anyone who feels that way to query his old teammates in Florida and Boston. The Red Sox fans, who lauded Millar as one of the leaders of the 2004 World Series championship team, turned on him - albeit temporarily - when he was vocal about his displeasure for not getting enough at-bats when Boston acquired Olerud in 2005.

There were some reports Millar even asked to be traded. Though he acknowledges expressing his displeasure to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, he said he never asked for a trade.

Millar spent some stretches on the bench last season until he became the club's everyday first baseman after Lopez and Conine were traded. Perlozzo said he had talks with Millar and was fine with how he handled a reserve role.

"You expect a guy to want to be in a game. Let's put it that way," Perlozzo said. "If a guy has a legitimate beef, he should come in and talk to me and Kevin is like that. We get along and we talk. Part of that is my responsibility, to let a guy know what I'm thinking and we get it out and move on."

Perlozzo also summoned Millar into his office about "10 days ago" just as the speculation started about Millar's role for the season.

"The message basically was let's not panic here, let's not read too much into what's going on," said Perlozzo. "I said just stay with me, keep working hard and we'll see where we are when we get close and if we need to talk about it again, we will. ...

"In Kevin's situation, I don't ever put something in stone because he's a good player and I want to get him some time. If he gets some time and starts swinging the bat, obviously I'm going to have to make some adjustments."

Gibbons, Millar and Huff are all represented by the same agent and are close friends. Gibbons said he and Millar joke occasionally about them being the "DH platoon" and are fine with the reality that whoever is hitting is the best is going to be in the lineup.

"Kevin will never be fine if he's not playing," Gibbons said. "He's not going to accept sitting on the bench. But I don't see ... especially if we're winning, him making a ruckus. Kevin is a jokester and all but he's a professional. His main goal is winning, make no mistake about it."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

ONLINE EXCLUSIVEThe Sun's Roch Kubatko provides Orioles spring training game details at baltimoresun.com/roch

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