MINNEAPOLIS — Only a souvenir hound can fully understand the distance traveled this week by Mark Lemke.
Simply examine his autograph on baseballs he signed two winters ago in his hometown of Utica, N.Y., when he finally reached the major leagues after six years of trying:
\o7 Mark Lemke, second baseman, Atlanta Braves.\f7
"We said, 'Mark, why don't you sign just your name?' " said hometown friend Al Calogero. "He said, 'Because I don't think anybody knows who I am.' "
Five games into the 1991 World Series, he can get away with simply signing \o7 Lemke\f7 . Or \o7 Mark\f7 .
Or by simply drawing a picture of a troll with a \o7 20\f7 on his back.
The sight of this 5-foot-9 player with the five o'clock shadow and teeth in a permanently clenched position has become as familiar nationwide as the story of the Braves, who are within one victory of the first World Series championship in Atlanta history.
"And I didn't even think I was going to get a World Series \o7 at-bat\f7 ," Lemke said. "What has happened is going to take awhile to sink in."
With the Braves leading the Minnesota Twins, three games to two, before tonight's Game 6, Lemke is batting a Series-leading .438.
He has as many extra-base hits, four, as any two Twins combined. He was a late-inning hero in all three Brave victories in Atlanta.
"Not bad for a guy who looks like a plumber," said Rocco Brodt, another Utica friend. "Or a schoolteacher."
Not bad, indeed, for a guy whose vision is so bad that off the field, he wears horned-rimmed glasses with thick lenses. Only while playing will he wear contact lenses.
"I put on his glasses once and just looking through them made me sick to my stomach," Calogero said. "I asked him what he sees without them, and he said: 'Shapes.' You ask me, he's legally blind."
He has not done badly, either, for a guy who had made a tradition of not caring about tradition. He is so fond of his beard stubble that he mentioned it during a recent meeting with Brave General Manager John Schuerholz.
Lemke, 26, wanted to know if he had to shave during the World Series.
"He told me as long as I kept playing well, I could do whatever I wanted to do," Lemke said. "I look this way during the regular season. I don't want to change now."
More than anything, Lemke has not done badly for a 27th-round draft choice who had played in only 30 major league games after seven pro seasons.
Growing up in Utica, a city of about 70,000 in central New York, Lemke was better known as a basketball player. Baseball was something he played infrequently, and in the snow.
"I can dunk--if somebody throws the ball up there for me," Lemke said. "My hands are too small to palm it."
He became an infielder in baseball only because he was always the smallest guy, and he became a switch-hitter only because he thought he didn't have a choice.
He and childhood friends would play with a baseball bat and a tennis ball on the grounds of the Mohawk Psychiatric Center. Left field was considered off-limits because of large trees, behind which patients roamed.
"So you had to hit the ball to right field, which was hard for a right-handed hitter," Lemke said. "One day, I tried hitting left-handed, and it was so much easier, I kept it up."
He revealed the best part of his game at 15, when he was recruited by the Adrian Post American Legion team. They had a veteran shortstop, which meant Lemke would have to earn his job.
Other American Legion teams in the area guaranteed him a job, and his father recommended that he join one of them.
"But Mark decided on his own to come to my team, because he wanted to test himself against this kid and find out how good he was," said Mike Macchione, the Adrian coach. "He went against his father's wishes and everybody."
After becoming the Adrian shortstop and leading the team to a state championship at 16, Lemke soon had to choose between the Braves' low-round offer or a scholarship to Purdue.
Figuring he would always have time for college, he took baseball. Five seasons later, even after being stuck in Class A for three seasons, he was pleased with his decision.
He said if he had gone to college and come close to getting a degree, he might have been tempted to quit the game.
"But I couldn't quit because I had nothing else," Lemke said.
A couple of years ago, he told Calogero of the depth of this commitment.
"He told me that even if he spent the rest of his life in the minor leagues, he was never going to quit," Calogero said. "Baseball was all that mattered to him, even if it wasn't major league baseball."
During his third season in Class A, 1987, he agreed to fill in at third base even though he had never played there before. He wound up hitting 20 home runs for the Durham (N.C.) Bulls, and the Braves finally took notice.
"Just like our backs have been against the wall this year, my back was against the wall back then," Lemke said. "I didn't know nothing about third base, but I had to do something. I showed them I could be more than an average player.