Saturday, June 10, 2006

Last year, when the shortstop merry-go-round stopped, Orlando Cabrera was with the Angels, David Eckstein the Cardinals, Edgar Renteria the Red Sox and Omar Vizquel the Giants. No brass rings were left when the Washington Nationals went to grab a shortstop, so they got stuck with Cristian Guzman.

This year when the ride stopped, Rafael Furcal was with the Dodgers, Renteria was dealt to the Braves and Royce Clayton was left without a starting job when the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager decided the club didn’t want the 36-year-old shortstop back.

So this time there was a jewel for the Nationals to grab, and they did.

“I was in Arizona, trying to get a multiyear deal, but it wasn’t out there,” Clayton said. “Then Arizona withdrew their one-year offer. The new GM [Josh Byrnes] came in and said he didn’t want me back. The door closed in Los Angeles once Furcal signed there — that had looked like a real possibility. Atlanta traded for Renteria, and that meant there were no starting jobs out there. I came here thinking this might be my best opportunity. Other teams were offering me a backup role exclusively. But here it was more of a let’s see what happens, come in and battle for the job and see what happens.”

Now, it may not have seemed at first that Clayton qualified as a brass ring, but these days he certainly looks like a prize, batting .382 in his last nine games going into last night’s game against the Phillies. But what makes him truly valuable is that he is not Cristian Guzman, who is out for the season with a torn right labrum and should never see the light of day in a Nationals uniform. The Lerners and Stan Kasten should just file the remaining $8million they will owe him for the next two years under public relations costs.

As cursed as the Nationals were when they signed Guzman to a four-year, $16 million deal last year, that is nearly how fortunate they were to have had a shot at a shortstop like Clayton, who has had an impressive but unsung career. He is in the mold of the traditional shortstop — a solid offensive player, scoring 882 runs, with 1,791 hits, 332 doubles, 55 triples, 108 home runs and 688 RBI over 16 seasons — but valued for his glove. His .974 fielding percentage going into the season ranked him seventh among shortstops with a minimum of 1,000 games.

You would think that Ozzie Guillen holds the single season fielding record for the Chicago White Sox, right? But it’s Clayton, who set the franchise record for a .988 percentage in 2001.

Yet here he was, without a starting job, offered backup roles from all teams except the Nationals (his eighth major league team), who gave him a minor league contract but had no choice but to let Clayton compete for a starting job. With a one-year, $1 million deal, Clayton had a legitimate chance to unseat a player making $4 million a year.

“This game is all hype,” Clayton said. “If ESPN decides to hype a guy up, then that guy will receive attention. It doesn’t mean he is a better player than I am, but the fact that he may come from a market with more attention, he will create more stir. That is how this game goes today.

“As long as the guys in the clubhouse know what I’ve done and the organization I am with, that is all that matters to me. I am trying to go out there and win games, not awards. I know what I’ve done, and no one can take that away from me.”

Clayton started the season slowly, but picked up his game when manager Frank Robinson took him out of the eighth spot and began batting him second. When Dusty Baker was managing the Giants, he also said he felt Clayton, a young player at the time, was an ideal No. 2 hitter.

He never got much of a chance to hit there until he went to Colorado in 2004, and is now flourishing there with the Nationals.

“I have been hitting second for the last couple of years and have become accustomed to it,” Clayton said. “I enjoy the challenge.”

Despite Washington being a fallback for Clayton, he loves the city and has brought his family — his wife, who is a former British Olympic sprinter, and their four children (including triplets born in October 2005) — to live in the District. “We love the area,” he said. “The culture is great and the diversity. It is an outstanding fit for my family.”

Clayton may not have gotten much hype over the years, but he has a brush with Hollywood greatness. One of his claims to fame is that when he was with the Rangers in 1999, Clayton was the hitter Tampa Bay rookie pitcher Jim Morris, at the age of 36 — yes, “The Rookie” himself — struck out.

So in the movie, at the big moment when Dennis Quaid strikes out the batter, it is Royce Clayton, though he didn’t play himself in the movie.

“I have no idea who played me, but whoever it was had no athleticism,” Clayton said. “He had a horrible swing. People ask me, ‘Was that you?’ I say, ‘Did you take a look at that guy?’”

Nationals fans saw a guy who looked a lot like that last year playing shortstop. Fortunately, they grabbed a brass ring to replace him.

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