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A Flip, a Switch, Then McLemore Clicks : Baseball: Oriole manager moves ex-Angel after getting idea from watching playoffs on TV.

September 02, 1993|SCOTT MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — There is a point of reference when charting Mark McLemore's latest major league move, and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with his career batting average or his former employers in Anaheim, Cleveland and Houston.

No, think simple. Think brown. Think Jerry Browne of the Oakland Athletics.

The move that probably salvaged McLemore's career--shipping him from second base to right field rather than from second to the minors--sneaked up on Baltimore Manager Johnny Oates last fall like Labor Day sneaks up on summer.

"I saw him shagging balls in batting practice and he was getting to the ball better than some of our outfielders," Oates said. "You could see he could catch the ball and he had good hand-eye judgment."

Once the season ended, Oates nestled back into his Barcalounger, flipped on the television, and something clicked.

"I saw Jerry Browne was starting in the outfield for Oakland in the American League Championship Series," Oates said. "And I said, 'If Jerry Browne can play the outfield in the American League Championship Series, then Mark McLemore can play the outfield in July for us.' "

Or in April, or August, as it turns out. After seven bitter summers--he played only enough to qualify for four years of big league service time--McLemore has become the Orioles' version of Detroit's Tony Phillips. He has started 99 games in right field, 15 at second base, three at third and one as the designated hitter.

The .229 career average he carried into the '93 season is suddenly a baseball lifetime ago. In 122 games this season, he is hitting .297. He started this week batting .296, his lowest average since July 25. He leads the team in runs (73), hits (145), triples (five) and stolen bases (21).

But the best statistic, according to McLemore, is this: For the first time in recent memory, he is playing everyday.

"It's great," McLemore said. "The only thing I have to do when I look at the lineup card is see where I'm playing. It's a lot different than wondering when you're going to be playing."

Which has been the case since he failed to live up to the Angels' expectations in the 1980s. They assigned him outright to the Cleveland organization in August, 1990. Then McLemore was released by the Indians at the end of that year and released again by Houston in 1991.

He languished on the Baltimore bench in 1992--only his second full season in the majors--and batted .246. Then the Orioles, looking to trim their payroll, declined to offer him a contract last winter but invited him to spring training as a non-roster player.

"It's something I've done before," McLemore said. "It wasn't the best of situations."

But it wasn't the worst, either. There was no contract, but there was an invitation.

"I still felt I could play at the major league level," McLemore said. "Having a messed-up attitude wasn't going to do anything. It wasn't going to help me accomplish what I wanted to accomplish."

So he spent the winter at home in Phoenix working with Mack Newton, a taekwondo expert who helped McLemore physically and mentally. McLemore had read about Newton in a newspaper during the season.

"He rehabbed Bo Jackson and I saw he was in Phoenix," McLemore said. "I live in Phoenix and figured he was a guy who could help me."

They worked out together from the end of October until late January and, by the end of it, McLemore was doing 300 to 400 sit-ups and push-ups at a time in 10-minute increments.

Then there was the mental side of his workouts with Newton.

"A lot of meditating," McLemore said. "Thinking about what I wanted to do and seeing myself doing it."

Once Oates informed McLemore in January that he would like his infielder to try the outfield, McLemore looked up another Arizona resident--Phillips, who lives in Scottsdale. And when it became evident in spring training that McLemore was going to be spending a lot of time in the outfield, he sought out Phillips again.

"The only advice I asked him was how to care for your arm when you're playing both the infield and outfield," McLemore said. "I didn't want to be an infielder who goes to the outfield and gets a sore arm and is unable to throw.

"Basically, he said to be conscious of where you are and where you're throwing. If you're at second base or third base, throw that way. In the outfield, throw the way you're supposed to. Don't get lazy and flip the ball into the infield."

McLemore said his biggest adjustment in the outfield was getting used to not being involved in every play; Oriole coach Davey Lopes, who works with Baltimore outfielders, said depth perception on line drives gave McLemore the most difficulty.

"That seems to give most people the most trouble," Lopes said. "Even proven outfielders have trouble with it occasionally. In one series this year he missed a ball but then, in the same series, Kirby Puckett misjudged one.

"I told (McLemore), 'See, it's a difficult play for almost everybody."

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