- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Rob Mackowiak can look back and laugh about it now, how he began his baseball career as a shortstop, then moved to second base, then to right field, then to third base, then to … well, you get the picture.

“I guess I was never good enough at one, so they kept moving me,” said Mackowiak, who has done everything but catch and pitch. “And I just kind of picked it up as I moved on every year.”

Willie Harris’ story isn’t much different: a natural second baseman-turned-center fielder-turned-third baseman-turned jack of all trades.

But either new member of the Washington Nationals won’t complain about his reputation as a super utility man, someone who plays every position but doesn’t play any of them extraordinarily well. If anything, Mackowiak and Harris know their ability to do it all is the best thing they have going for them.

“If I didn’t play every position, I wouldn’t be in the big leagues,” Mackowiak said. “If I was just a shortstop, I’d be sitting at home [or] working somewhere right now. So it’s been a blessing for me.”

The Nationals made a point last winter to add more versatility to their bench, and the signings of Mackowiak ($1.5 million) and Harris ($800,000) to one-year contracts were key steps in that process. Manny Acta doesn’t figure to start either guy regularly, but the manager sure plans to summon both off the bench.

“They knew what they were getting into when they came over here,” Acta said. “But the National League is good for those type of guys. Every day there’s a pinch-hit or two or a double switch.”

Neither Mackowiak, 31, nor Harris, 29, set out to become utility men, and neither can pinpoint precisely the circumstance that led to the career path.

Harris was actually considered a top second base prospect with the Baltimore Orioles but was switched to center field in the minor leagues out of necessity. Traded to the White Sox in 2002, he bounced between center and second, then even played a little shortstop during Chicago’s 2005 World Series championship season.

Three years and three organizations later, Harris has played everywhere the Nationals have asked him to: second base, center field, left field and third base. And he’s happy to do it.

“Everybody wants to play every day, but everybody can’t play every day,” he said. “You’ve just got to know your role. I think being able to play everywhere, playing a lot of different positions, is way more important than just being able to play center field or third base.”

The fundamentally sound Harris, who perhaps talks even faster than he runs, is the prototypical 25th man on a 25-man National League roster: someone who can pinch-run, lay down a sacrifice bunt, steal a base or come off the bench to play any position. It’s a job he takes seriously.

“My role here, whatever it may be, is just as big as anything,” he said. “In the bottom of the ninth, we need to get a bunt down. How big is that? We need to get a stolen base. How big is that? It’s definitely a big role.”

Mackowiak provides a powerful left-handed bat off the bench. In seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, White Sox and San Diego Padres, he hit 63 homers with 110 doubles.

The Pirates’ 53rd-round draft pick in 1996, he has always embraced an underdog mentality, exhibiting a willingness to do whatever is asked of him.

“The way I look at it, if I’m in the game and playing, who cares what position I’m at?” Mackowiak said. “I don’t need to play right field every day, or do this or that. I’ve been in the big leagues for seven years now, and if it wasn’t for moving around, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Unable to play for the last three weeks because of lingering effects of offseason sports hernia surgery, Mackowiak has begun appearing in minor league games and should be ready to return to the big league field within a few days.

Once healthy, he’ll try to squeeze in games at nearly every defensive position in the field. Right field? Check. Third base? Check. Second base? Check.

Catcher? Well, no one has asked Mackowiak to do that yet, but he’d accept the challenge if needed.

“Oh, I’d give it a try,” he said. “What’s the worst that could happen? You make an error, I guess.”

Ditto for Harris.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it, but if they needed me out there, I’d do it and do the best job I could,” he said. “I’d go out there and give it my all.”

Welcome to the life of a utility man, a job that doesn’t require perfection of anything but competency of everything.

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