A utility posting (it’s all over the place) about utility players
By Matthew Taylor
Scott Moore has been in the news this week for his efforts to find a spot on the Birds’ roster (“Healthy Moore Is Drawing Attention,” O’s Moore improves chances with versatility). More importantly, he’s vying for a spot in O’s fans hearts as the team’s utility man.
Maybe it’s the underdog spirit of the fan. Perhaps it’s easier to relate to – and picture yourself as – a guy on the margins of the game than one who’s in the heart of the lineup. Or it could just be that the expectations are so much lower for these guys that every accomplishment becomes a memorable one. No matter the reason, utility players are a magnet for fan affection.
The attention paid to Scott Moore’s Spring Training efforts offer the perfect opportunity to look back at some of our favorite Orioles utility players. We went deep (into the memory bank), so now it’s time to Touch ‘Em All as we share our top four part-time O’s players.
Jeffrey Allen Reboulet (1997-1999): The defining aspect of Jeff Reboulet’s brief tenure with the Orioles was his curious ability to hit well against Randy Johnson. Reboulet, he of the 20 home runs in 12 Major League seasons, went deep against Johnson in Game 4 of the 1997 ALCS, a 3-1 O’s victory; it was his only hit in five plate appearances during that series. Reboulet faced Johnson 21 times more than any other pitcher during his career, batting .273 with an .811 OPS in 66 plate appearances. He had two career home runs off of Johnson, matching his highest total against any one pitcher (he also had two home runs off of Ricky Bones) . The O’s re-signed Reboulet in January 2003 before realizing (tongue-in-cheek) that Randy Johnson was no longer pitching in the American League; Reboulet was gone by March. Co-founder of the Reb Baseball Academy and a member of the Alter High School Hall of Fame, Reboulet won a poll on Orioles Hangout as the favorite “bad Oriole.”
Mark Tremell McLemore (1992-1994): Back in college I was one impulse buy at the local Sports Authority away from having a Mark McLemore poster hanging in my dorm room; that’s how much I liked the guy. McLemore made his first $1 million with the Birds in 1994, jumping up from salaries of $325,000 and $345,000 in ’92 and ’93. Like Jeff Reboulet, McLemore made a brief return to the Orange and Black toward the end of his career, signing with the club as a free agent on Feb. 4, 2004 before being released on April 3, 2004. McLemore’s career highlights for the O’s included looking great in a pair of shades, posting two consecutive seasons of 20 or more stolen bases (although he was caught 15 times in 1993), and providing 11 sacrifice hits in 1993, the eighth-highest total in the AL. McLemore was so popular during his later stint in Texas that the parents of a Houston Astros pitcher named their son after him. (Okay, not really.)
Rene Adrian Gonzalez (1988-1990) – You can say this about the guy: his average never dipped below the Mendoza line. For three seasons Gonzalez batted about .215; he added four home runs for good measure during that period. In the tradition of many great utility players, Gonzalez earned his keep with his glove rather than his bat. Just consider this anecdote from Tim Kurkjian: “Rene Gonzalez, a highly skilled infielder for several teams, used to carry his glove around in a Wonder Bread bag. Why? ‘Wonder’s slogan for their bread is ‘No Holes,” he said. ‘I figured ‘no holes in the bread, no holes in my glove.’ You don’t take chances with your glove.'” In an interesting bit of coincidence that ultimately means very little, Baseball Reference lists the player “most similar by age” to Gonzalez at ages 34 and 35 as … Jeff Reboulet. Since his playing days ended Gonzalez has helped run the Line Drive Baseball Academy in Santa Clara, Calif., and has managed the Arizona League Brewers. He has not, however, started singing religious songs in Spanish.
Lenn Haruki Sakata (1980 – 1985) – Lenn Sakata may be the most successful O’s utility player in team history; he’s certainly the most well remembered. Sakata played for the 100-win 1980 Orioles, the 94-win 1982 team that lost the division to the Brewers on the final day of the season, and the 1983 World Series Champions. He was the last Oriole to play shortstop before Cal Ripken took over the position. However, Sakata’s best known for his role in one incredible midweek game during the summer of 1983; August 24, to be specific. That’s when manager Joe Altobelli, who was out of other personnel options, moved Sakata from second base to catcher in extra frames. It turned out to be one of the most famous half-innings in baseball as Tippy Martinez picked off three separate Blue Jays in the top of the 10th. Sakata, whose base on balls was part of the Birds’ two-run, ninth inning rally, then homered in the bottom of the inning to give the Orioles an unforgettable 7-4 victory. It was Orioles Magic at its best. Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus vividly recounts the events of that evening at Futility Infielder. Jaffe lists Sakata in his Wall of Fame, but here’s guessing that Lenny is more proud of his spot in the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.
Extra bases: Check out this interesting tribute to lesser known O’s utility man Jeff Huson.