- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Two years after his unceremonious exit from baseball, the rhymed hyperbole of his nickname and the marvel of one glorious afternoon in St. Louis has preserved at least some wry measure of baseball lore for "Hard Hitten'" Mark Whiten.
Good thing, because there were points during Whiten's 11-year wandering er, career when his crisscrossing of the baseball map got so furious, not even posterity could keep up with him.
Officially, Whiten played for the Boston Red Sox in 1995, but just try to find his bio in any Red Sox media guide. After being acquired from St. Louis that April, he played just 32 games for Boston the baseball equivalent of a one-night stand and much too short a stay to be worth remembering.
At least Whiten can cling to the memory of Sept.7, 1993, when he hit four home runs and collected 12 RBI in one game as a Cardinal. The rare feat was not enough to prevent the trade to Boston two seasons later, but it did keep five more teams interested in him after the Red Sox three in 1996 alone despite a not-so-hard-hittin' .259 average over the final six years of Whiten's career.
That, in a snapshot, is the life of a baseball journeyman, whose nine lives are often scattered unglamorously among many teams.
"I used to try explaining what it's like to my sister, who's a schoolteacher," said former Expo/Ranger/ Oriole/Mariner/Angel/Cub Jeff Huson. "Imagine that every six months, you have to change schools and get to know a new principal and all the administration. And then, once you start to feel comfortable, you have to move all over again."
There are plenty of instances of the well-traveled Hall of Famer (Gaylord Perry, Dave Winfield and, one day soon, Rickey Henderson), but the role of baseball wanderer is more commonly reserved for the has-been (remember Pete Incaviglia?) or the prospect who never was (hello, Todd Van Poppel). Probably, the closest Incaviglia will come to Cooperstown is Newark, N.J. home of the independent Atlantic League team where he plied his trade last summer but that didn't stop the San Diego Padres from taking a flier on him during camp last April. Someone, it seems, is always interested.
Baseball can be pretty accommodating that way, rescuing any and all grizzled veterans off the scrap heap who might patch a hole. There is no expiration date on the shelf life of the left-handed reliever or the utility player, for instance. Even an over-the-hill slugger like Incaviglia can make a second career out of being a pinch hitter or designated hitter.
Long after the five-tool flash in the pan fizzles, the one-dimensional role player remains his life and times immortalized on old baseball cards and in bits of trivia. Ubiquity can even stave off anonymity, granting the nomadic player a measure of cult-like celebrity the kind that, once the ride finally ends, begs the question:
Where have you gone, Candy Maldonado?
The fourth outfielder: from left field to left out
OK, so maybe not beg. For the curious, though, the former outfielder retired in 1995 to his native Puerto Rico, where his family tired of picking up and moving after every trade or free-agent signing decided it best to stay behind and wait for him in the last few years of his 15-season career.
"I was never able to establish myself in one place," said Maldonado, now a commentator on ESPN's Spanish-language baseball telecasts. "The toughest part was with the family. When I got to Toronto [in 1992], my wife said maybe the best thing is just to stay in one place. They would come and see you some weeks and on summer vacation."
In 1993, Maldonado thought he'd finally found a little stability after signing a two-year, $3.3million deal with the Chicago Cubs in the offseason. It was the largest contract of his career, but there was a catch.
Two games into the season, after batting cleanup and playing left field on Opening Day, Maldonado wasn't in the lineup at all. Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre apparently had never been as keen on Maldonado as the front office was. All along, in fact, Lefebvre had been eyeing 25-year-old Derrick May for Maldonado's job.
That August, Maldonado was shipped off to Cleveland, an old haunt of his from the 1990 season, where he was used solely as a fourth outfielder during the Indians' stretch run. With that, Maldonado's second career as a platoon player was born.
Eventually, in 1995, he signed back with Toronto for the league minimum as "my last resort to stay in baseball." By August, though, he was on the move for one final time, traded to Texas for the only figure in baseball more nondescript than a backup outfielder "the player to be named later."
"I wished that I could have stayed around long enough for my son to appreciate it," said Maldonado, whose son was but a tyke when he had the chance to be a batboy in Cleveland. "One time he asked me, 'Why don't you try to play again?' But even if you get yourself into shape, they wouldn't want you [past age 40]."
The pinch-hit specialist: battling the law of averages
Oakland outfielder John Mabry spends most of his nights at the ballpark trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
The left-handed-hitting Mabry usually hears his name called around the eighth or ninth inning, when lucky him he gets to come off the bench cold to bat against some of the nastiest arms in the major leagues. It's almost like he's being set up to fail.
"You can't ask somebody to go out, play golf once a month and beat Tiger Woods," said Mabry, 31. "Every time you go up there, you're going to face the other teams' setup guys and closers. The league average against those guys is .180 and they expect you to hit .300. The numbers don't add up for you they're stacked against you."
Last May, Mabry was thrown into another apparent no-win situation. In a deal that had many folks scratching their heads, he was traded from Philadelphia to Oakland for popular Athletics outfielder Jeremy Giambi. After six teams in three years, maybe he should have seen the move coming. But Mabry swears he didn't.
"Every one catches you off guard because they don't let you know what's going on," Mabry said. "You're just kind of property, and they swap you around.
"You're supposed to be in the next city in 24 hours, so what happens is, your wife gets crushed. She has to move the kids, the dog, everything you own. She's got to send some of it home, send some of it to the next city, and figure out how you're going to live. Are you going to live near the park? Stay in a hotel? Stay at home?"
Mabry might just have to accept such disruptions as part of his job description. Not even the man who perfected Mabry's craft has been spared a life out of a suitcase. Lenny Harris, baseball's all-time leader in pinch hits, is playing for his sixth team in Milwaukee.
Mabry, who's been starting lately with Oakland, hasn't given up on the prospect of winning a permanent everyday job. He is probably not in the A's plans, but don't tell him that.
"You never give up hope that's what you play for," Mabry said. "But there's other factors, too. Age starts creeping up on you, and you don't have the legs that you used to. I hope everyday that I'll see my name in the lineup until somebody says I can't and takes my uniform away."
Moments after he finishes his thought, the lineup card for that night's game is posted in the A's clubhouse, Mabry starting in left field and batting seventh. For tonight, at least, he has a fair chance to make his own luck.
The utility infielder: have glove, will travel
Two years removed from his playing days, the jet lag of redeye flights and the endless bus rides between minor league cities, Huson is still living out of hotels.
As the Cubs' roving infield instructor a fitting title, eh? Huson is on the road for an average of three weeks every month during the season. The time away from home doesn't grate on his wife and kids that much "they're used to it by now," Huson said and it certainly doesn't seem to wear on him. Not after the miles he has logged.
Huson, a former glove man whose bread and butter was his versatility, learned to play seven positions during his career, all to make himself more valuable to potential employers.
He also got by on smarts. When Huson was playing with Baltimore and manager Phil Regan asked him if he had ever played third base, Huson knew enough to tell a white lie.
"I said, 'Sure!'" Huson recalled. "I'd only played a couple games there in spring training. But I looked around and saw Cal [Ripken] at short, Robbie Alomar at second and Raffy [Palmeiro] at first, and I thought, 'I'll learn to play third.'"
At one point, Huson was even offered the chance to play all nine positions in one game, but he declined because "I didn't want to cheat the game." Besides, Huson already had his claim to fame in 1997, a fan informed him that she had created a Web site devoted entirely to him.
"I was like, 'Um, OK, do I have to pay you?'" Huson said. "It turned out not to be psycho or anything. It was great."
Through the final three years of his career, the site chronicled Huson's migrations to Seattle, Anaheim and Chicago which proved his final home, even though he didn't know it at the time. When a bunch of his Cubs teammates decided to shave their heads, Huson politely declined to join them. He wasn't immune to the peer pressure he was just anticipating it in advance from his teammates in the next city.
"If I get released tomorrow, I'm going to look like a fool," he said at the time.
Retirement loomed in his mind as well. Huson thought his time might be up in spring training with the Angels in 1999, when he went to his locker and saw his new uniform. He had been given 76 a fine number for an offensive lineman but not a utility infielder trying to make the 25-man roster.
"I almost walked out as soon as I walked in," Huson said. But in a scene Huson calls identical to one in "The Rookie," his wife talked him out of retirement over the phone.
Huson finally quit on the last day of the 2000 regular season at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The park had been the site of his first big league hit in 1991 and, Huson decided, it would be the scene of his last one as well.
"I took that to be a sign," he said. "After the game, I just sat there in the dugout for a while and thought about all the places I'd been and how short the ride had seemed. I had a pretty good ride for someone who wasn't even drafted."
The lefty specialist: baseball immortal
Left-handed pitchers never die, they just move to the bullpen. Right-handed hacks may come and go in baseball, but southpaws can live forever.
Philadelphia situational reliever Dan Plesac has been making a living off his left arm for 17 big league seasons. Unlike most flotsam and jetsam that washes up in the bullpen, Plesac still had his best years ahead of him when he was converted from a starter. In 1986, Milwaukee manager George Bamberger proclaimed Plesac to be the second coming of Dave Righetti, a former lefty closer with the Yankees. It turned out to be a pretty good experiment.
"I didn't think that's where I was going to carve my niche. I thought I was going to make a career out of being a starting pitcher," Plesac said. "But I wouldn't have lasted 17 years starting. It's turned out to be a blessing in disguise."
Plesac rode his 98-mph gas to four 20-save seasons, the last in 1990. After that, shoulder problems cost him some velocity on his fastball and Plesac had to reinvent himself again, this time as a middleman.
"I had to carve another niche," he said. "I had to teach myself how to pitch after I'd already pitched for five years."
He has starred as a specialist ever since, holding lefty hitters to a .132 average this season at age 40. But while his value is immeasurable in the late innings, it has never been enough to keep him in one city. For teams out of the hunt, lefties like Plesac become more useful for the prospects they can fetch in a trade.
Since leaving Milwaukee, Plesac has played with five teams, including two stints with Toronto. His left-handedness has helped add to his longevity, but not as much as his effectiveness.
"You hear the adage, 'If you're left-handed and can throw strikes, you can pitch forever,'" Plesac said. "Yeah, you can do that, but not in the big leagues. You can do it in the independent leagues, but if you can't get people out, you can't pitch forever in the big leagues."
With this year's trade deadline just nine days away, Plesac has a decision to make. He has been mulling retirement and though the Phillies would like him to return next season, they would prefer to get something in return for him if it is his last year.
"I know that I could pitch at a level that I would be happy with next year," he said. "But I want to leave on my terms. I've seen guys that have played one year too many."
End of the line
Benito Santiago seemed like he might be one of those guys. Until, that is, this season.
After departing San Diego in 1992, Santiago floundered around the majors in search of a catching gig, changing uniforms six times. A serious car accident that nearly ended his career in 1998 didn't help his cause.
Then, in 2001, Santiago received a call from Giants manager Dusty Baker, who invited him to camp. Santiago won the starting job from two younger players and, after a surprising first half in 2002, represented San Francisco at the All-Star Game. It was his first trip to the Midsummer Classic in 10 years.
"I feel like a rookie again," he said, but with one critical difference: "I don't take things for granted anymore."
For some aging players, the call never comes. Rather than wait in a purgatory next to the phone, most journeymen move on to the most blissful of baseball afterlives: coaching.
Maldonado, on the other hand, has found his way all the way into the front office as general manager of the Bayamon Cowboys of the Puerto Rico League. Meanwhile, Plesac says he has mulled going into coaching for a while now. Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa already sees his potential.
"He's like having another coach out there, with ability," Bowa said.
Huson, whom former Cubs teammate Sammy Sosa has praised as future manager material, actually turned down a managing gig at the Class AAA level when he accepted his roving instructor assignment. It wasn't the right fit.
Odds are he'll be a skipper soon enough, though. For baseball lifers like Huson, it's a natural final destination or is it just another carousel? After all, besides the Earl Weavers and Tom Kellys, how many skippers last with only one team?
If and when he is hired, Huson probably wouldn't unpack his suitcase anyway. At this point, it's force of habit.


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