- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

JUPITER, Fla. — More than a few among the crowd of 5,046 yesterday at Roger Dean Stadium probably wondered who that guy was playing first base for the Washington Nationals.

Number 92?

Turned out it was Carlos Baerga, a three-time American League All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger winner and career .292 hitter.

Baerga mistakenly left his jersey behind at the Nationals’ complex in Viera and was given a temporary, one-day rental by clubhouse manager Mike Wallace. But his regular number this spring is 77, hardly the kind you’d expect to see a player with Baerga’s pedigree wearing.

“I said to Mike, ‘I’m going to keep it [if I make the Opening Day roster],’” Baerga said of No. 77. “I don’t care. Anywhere I go, I use the number they give me.”

That tells you all you need to know about Baerga, who 10 years ago was legitimately one of the game’s best players but now has accepted his role as a utility man and clubhouse mentor. It’s the only way the 36-year-old figured he could stay in this game, and it speaks volumes about his persistence and lack of ego.

“It was tough a little bit at the beginning,” said Baerga, who has not been an everyday major league player since he was with the New York Mets in 1998. “But I realized I’m a guy that gets used to things right away. I was getting hurt all the time, and I wasn’t putting up the numbers every day. So when they told me I was going to be a utility player, I changed my mindset.”

In the early 1990s, Baerga was a devastating force in the Cleveland Indians’ lineup, an everyday second baseman who averaged 20 homers, 90 RBI and a .315 batting average over a four-season stretch. But injuries, an ill-fated trade to the Mets and advancing age took their toll. By 2001, Baerga looked finished, a .240-hitting infielder with a history of injuries who shuttled between six major league organizations in less than three years.

So he decided to make some radical changes and some radical decisions. After getting cut by the Seattle Mariners before the 2001 season, he went to Korea (where he played in 39 games) and then back to the United States, where he spent the rest of the season with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.

He emerged a healthier, and wiser, man, and when he signed on with the Boston Red Sox in 2002, he knew he was doing so as a utility man. He hit .286 in 182 at-bats and became a beloved figure in a clubhouse in desperate need of an authority figure.

“That was a big year for me,” Baerga said. “In the American League, it’s kind of hard to be a utility guy. But I prepared myself to be that kind of guy. The Red Sox gave me an opportunity, and they helped me a lot.”

One year later, Baerga signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and put up staggering numbers as a switch-hitting pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman, second baseman or third baseman. In 207 at-bats, he hit .343 and drove in 39 runs.

The transformation was complete, no easy task for a player who spent his entire life to that point starring as an everyday regular.

“It’s not easy, but if a player understands what is happening to him and he wants to stay in the game, he realizes he’s going to have to make adjustments,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “He made the adjustments, and it’s worked out well for him.”

Baerga’s playing time and production dipped considerably last year (he hit .235 over 85 at-bats) as the Diamondbacks went through a painful youth movement and lost 111 games. They released him late in December, but he stayed in shape playing winter ball in Puerto Rico and working out with the likes of Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran and Roberto Alomar.

On Feb. 20, someone finally came calling. Nationals general manager Jim Bowden was in need of bench help and remembered Baerga from his brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999.

“[Bowden] asked me if I was ready, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been practicing every day,’” Baerga said. “He told me he always believed in me, thought I was a good hitter. So I said I’m ready to help.”

Three weeks later, Baerga is making a strong case for a spot on Washington’s Opening Day roster. After missing a couple of days with a minor knee injury, he returned to go 3-for-4 yesterday against the Marlins, giving him a .364 batting average this spring. He even made a nifty play at first base, going high to snare Carlos Delgado’s bouncer and getting a forceout at second.

A few more days like that, and fans at RFK Stadium should be prepared to see some guy wearing a No. 77 Nationals jersey on the field this season.

Unless he decides to stick with yesterday’s good-luck No. 92.

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