- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Melvin Mora added a new title to his major league resume last season: All-Star.

Now he has got another label to savor, one he has been waiting to claim since breaking into the big leagues in 1999: everyday player.

After covering a variety of positions as the consummate utility man, Mora finally has a position to call his own. He will start at third base for the Baltimore Orioles on Opening Day, and if all goes as planned, he will stay there for at least the next three years.

“It’s good because I know what I have to do before I even come to the ballpark,” Mora said. “I don’t have to think about having to cover right field, shortstop or second base.”

Former Orioles manager Mike Hargrove often described Mora’s versatility as “a blessing and a curse.” Hargrove knew Mora was good enough to play one position on a regular basis but believed his real value to the team was his flexibility.

Baltimore’s new manager sees things differently. When Tony Batista left as a free agent to join the Montreal Expos, Lee Mazzilli called upon Mora to fill the void at third on a full-time basis.

“I brought him into my office, told him he was going to be my third baseman, and he gave me a big smile,” Mazzilli said. “I think he welcomes that, not worrying about left field or shortstop.”

The less Mora has to worry about, the better. His concern about taking care of his six kids — including a set of quintuplets — was eased by the three-year, $10million contract he signed in January.

Then, upon arriving at spring training, Mora learned he no longer had to concern himself with juggling three gloves during the daily drills.

“Concentrating on one position has made me more relaxed. It’s helped my batting because I know I don’t have to be working everywhere,” he said. “I think I will produce better, like last year, when I was in left field most of the time.”

Mora played five different positions over 11 games during the first month of the season. Then, injuries to outfielders Marty Cordova, B.J. Surhoff and Larry Bigbie left Hargrove no choice but to use Mora primarily in left.

Mora responded with the best stretch of baseball of his career. He reached base in 32 straight games while using a 23-game hitting streak to become the AL batting leader.

Mora maintained the lead from June9 to the final day before the All-Star break. That earned him his All-Star Game selection; he appeared as a pinch runner and played the outfield for an inning.

Mora missed all of August with a bruised wrist and sat out the final two weeks of the season with a partially torn ligament in his left knee.

Still, he finished with a .317 batting average and a .418 on-base percentage, numbers that convinced Mazzilli to place him second in the batting order.

“He puts the ball in play, and you can hit and run with him,” Mazzilli said. “He can hit the ball out of the ballpark, and his on-base percentage is good, too. That’s why I like him. He can get on base for our big guys.”

After enduring years of uncertainty as a utility player, Mora plans to bat second and play third base right into October.

“Last year, even when I was starting in the beginning, I didn’t play much,” he said. “I was waiting for my time, and when it came I proved I could play. After that, everything changed. People know who Melvin Mora is.”

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