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Role Player for a Team on a Roll

June 29, 1989|GARY KLEIN | Special to the Times

Rene Gonzales pushed through the doors of the visitors' clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium last Thursday and, as is his habit, immediately fixed his gaze upon the Baltimore Orioles' lineup card posted 50 feet away.

Despite the distance, Gonzales instantly spied his name in the column reserved for right-handed pinch-hitters.

Gonzales, the Orioles' reluctant utility man, shook his head.

"I've been blessed with talents and ability to play a lot of different positions, which is good and bad," Gonzales said while settling into a chair in front of his dressing stall. "I think I should be playing every day.

"When you're playing ball in school, no one ever says, 'I'm going to be a utility ballplayer in the big leagues.' It's just not the way it is.

"Anybody who is content with that role is a fool or a loser because if you don't think you can be playing every day, then what's the use of being here?"

Baltimore has found several uses for Gonzales, 27, a former Glendale College shortstop who has proved a valuable component for the upstart Orioles.

Last season, Gonzales played in 72 games--63 at third base and the others at shortstop, second base, first base and in right field.

This season, in a similarly versatile role, he has played in more than 30 games, batting .244 with a home run, six runs batted in and five stolen bases.

"He (Gonzales) doesn't like the term 'utility,' " Orioles' Manager Frank Robinson said. "He feels he's capable of playing on an everyday basis and that's good--I like that. But at this time I think he fits our needs where he's at.

"He doesn't mope about it, he has a good attitude and that's why he fits on this ballclub."

Said sportswriter Tim Kurkjian, who covers the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun: "It never looks like Rene needs to be in there for 10 straight days. He comes off the bench after having not played in two weeks and he never hurts you."

Gonzales made a name for himself last season when he briefly changed his name from Rene to R.C., even though his middle name is Adrian. R.C. just sounded better, Gonzalez said. Besides, he was tired of public-address and radio announcers confusing him with former Orioles shortstop Kiko Garcia and other players with Hispanic names.

Gonzales, who grew up in Rosemead, signed his first professional contract in 1982 after the Montreal Expos selected him in the fifth round of the draft out of Cal State Los Angeles.

The Expos hailed him as their shortstop of the future and cleared a path to the big leagues by releasing or trading several veterans, including Chris Speier.

However, in the winter of 1986, Gonzales was traded to the Orioles for catcher John Stefero.

Baltimore's plan supposedly called for Gonzales to play shortstop, which would allow perennial all-star Cal Ripken Jr. to move to third. Yet two and half years later, Ripken continues as the iron man shortstop while Gonzales languishes as a reserve.

"The day will come when I play every day--maybe not with the Baltimore Orioles," said Gonzales, who is in the final year of his contract. He is eligible for arbitration at the end of the season.

"Right now I'm playing behind a future Hall of Famer," Gonzales said. "What can I do?

"It's frustrating, but the way things are going so far this year, it makes it a little easier to swallow."

Indeed, fortune certainly has changed this season for the Orioles, who set a major league record by losing their first 21 games in 1988 and finished with a 54-107 mark--worst in the majors.

This season, Baltimore has led the American League East since May 26, spending more time in first place than any other major league team.

Many of the players who struggled through the dismal 1988 season aren't with the team this year. Longtime first baseman Eddie Murray is with the Dodgers. Veteran outfielder Fred Lynn is playing in Detroit. Only five players who started last season with the Orioles remain on the roster today.

"We had a mix of veterans and young guys last year and it just didn't work," Gonzales said. "Our work ethic was pretty poor. Fundamentally, it was probably one of the worst teams I've been on.

"In those first 21 games you can't mix a win in? Come on! With a lineup like Freddie Lynn and Terry Kennedy and Ripken and Murray? There's something wrong. I look back and can't remember guys bunting somebody else over, getting the ball to the right side or hitting sacrifice flies.

"They (management) cleaned house and brought in a new attitude . . . From spring training, it was 'Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.' Everyone was striving for a job and I think that attitude carried over to the season.

"This year you come to the ballpark at 2:30 and half the team is there--guys are working out and everybody is joking with everybody else. Last year, you wouldn't have that.

"We've won a lot of games on our hustle and enthusiasm alone--and we're only going to get better."

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