First-year Oriole Wilson Betemit has been a journeyman and… (Steve Nesius, Reuters )
The first thing you notice about Wilson Betemit as he talks about his career is that there is no bitterness in his voice, no spite toward previous organizations for a perceived lack of opportunities.
No, Betemit, the 30-year-old switch-hitter the Orioles signed to a two-year deal this past offseason to be their primary designated hitter and pinch-hitter, truly seems happy to be in the game.
"It would be frustrating if I didn't play no more, and I'd be at home," said Betemit, who is with his seventh major league club in his 10th season. "But right now, the opportunity is to play baseball. I am here, and I think we have the team to win. Give it a chance."
Betemit is the classic baseball cliche, the wunderkind prospect who never lived up to the hype. He was stuck behind All-Stars when he first made the majors, couldn't seize a full-time job when given the opportunity and then, in his late 20s, was pushed aside to make room for the next wave of wunderkinds.
It's baseball's circle of life, and Betemit was stuck in it for years. Not once in nine big league seasons has he had more than 400 at-bats. Maybe it's because he doesn't have one overwhelming talent. He doesn't have eye-popping power or a glove that plays at a certain position.
"I don't know why," he said. "I just wait for the opportunity."
Betemit was such a promising shortstop prospect that the Atlanta Braves broke the rules to get him, signing him out of the Dominican Republic as a 14-year-old, roughly 18 months earlier than baseball's international rules allow. The Braves were eventually fined and banned from scouting in the country for six months. Betemit sued to get out of the contract and become a free agent but eventually stayed with the organization that signed him.
Twice, Baseball America named him the best prospect in the talent-rich Braves system, and he made his debut in 2001 at age 19, going hitless in five plate appearances.
He didn't get back to the majors until 2004, then was up for good by 2005. By then, though, he was caught in a numbers game. The Braves had Rafael Furcal at shortstop, Marcus Giles at second and likely Hall of Famer Chipper Jones at third.
"How do you break into that?" Jim Presley, the Orioles' hitting coach, said. "The guys in front of him were everyday guys."
So Betemit was pushed into a utility role, playing three positions as a highly regarded 23-year-old. Again, in retrospect, Betemit's not bitter. He thinks that situation might have saved his career.
"That helped me a lot because I learned to play other positions," said Betemit, who has three hits and two RBIs in 16 at-bats over four games this season, including an 0-for-5 performance with three strikeouts Wednesday against the New York Yankees. "And I think if you learn other positions, you can be around longer in baseball now. I think if I played shortstop only at that time, maybe I wouldn't be here. Something might have happened by now."
He could have seized the Braves' starting shortstop job in 2006 when Furcal became a free agent, but Atlanta instead traded for Edgar Renteria. Betemit became expendable and in July 2006 was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Given the opportunity to be the Dodgers' starting shortstop, Betemit faltered, with some detractors saying poor conditioning hurt his ability to play every day. He then bounced around to the Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.
Last year, he hit .285 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .343 on-base percentage in 97 combined games for the Royals and Tigers. He became a free agent, and Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette saw him as a perfect fit, a veteran with a tested bat, a knack for getting on base and the ability to play just about anywhere, albeit no place particularly well.
This spring, Betemit was playing first base when a pop-up was hit in his direction. He tripped over the bag, then watched the ball clunk off his glove. After the game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter muttered, "not good," when assessing the play.
But that's not why he's in an Orioles uniform, that's not why he has stayed in the majors.
"He can play the field, but I believe his best position is batting," Duquette said in January when he announced the two-year deal worth $3.25 million. "He can get on base, he can hit, he can drive in a run. He has power. We did say we were also looking for a hitter, and I think we got a pretty good one in Betemit."
Betemit will mostly be used as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers — he has batted .276 with a .346 on-base percentage in those situations in his career. But he is naturally right-handed, so Presley thinks Betemit could be used in any situation in which a key hit is needed.