Utility players carve their own niche
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA--Brandon Inge is looking forward to graduation day. One of these years he'll arrive at spring training and have a place on the field to call his own, and he'll no longer have to lug around five gloves and an open mind. With luck, maybe he can follow in the spike path of Melvin Mora, the patron saint of utility players with memories too short to worship Tony Phillips or Bip Roberts.
Mora, who spent several years playing numerous positions for the Mets and Orioles-and still found time to father quintuplets-finally settled in at third base this year in Baltimore. The prospect of a similarly stable existence appeals to Inge, who's done everything but chalk the lines and pour the suds this season for the Tigers. But when you're more versatile than a Ronco Rotisserie, it's tough to lobby for a new role.
Lots of guys can play four positions, or even five. It takes a special man to sit in a catcher's squat one game, then move to the outfield the next day and hit the warning track at a full sprint.
"If I had to rank my favorite spots, it would be third base, then catcher, then all the outfield spots," Inge said. "The outfield is great when you get a ball, but it can be kind of boring just standing around out there."
Then again, it beats sitting in the dugout for 130 games a year spitting sunflower seeds and watching Pudge Rodriguez rake.
Inge, 27, is no Brandon-come-lately to the world of the preternaturally versatile. He was a shortstop and relief pitcher at Virginia Commonwealth, with a perfectly straight 90 mph fastball, and he envisioned a future in pro ball as a middle infielder. So it came as a jolt to him when Detroit picked him as a catcher in the second round of the 1998 draft.
After the obligatory seasoning in the minors, Inge hit .180, .202 and .203 in his first three years as a Tiger. He was fine behind the plate, but too many pitches kept missing his bat.
Inge figured his days as a contributor in Detroit were over when the Tigers signed Rodriguez to a multiyear deal in February. Then one day in Lakeland, Fla., manager Alan Trammell called Inge into the office and asked if he was interested in dabbling at, say, five positions instead of being a backup at one.
Once Inge put aside his pride, the rest was easy.
"The little kid in me came out," he said. "I told Tram point blank, 'I just want to play.' "
No Ego Required
Inge is making a major contribution to a Detroit team that's gone from paper-bag-over-the-head bad to respectable in only one year. He's given Rodriguez periodic breaks behind the plate, split time with Eric Munson at third, and shown sufficient speed and instincts to make a quick adjustment to the outfield. He's also hitting .300.
Inge is a valuable player because he adheres to the old Tony Phillips creed and never says no. It's a trait he shares with the Angels' Chone Figgins, the Reds' Ryan Freel, the Pirates' Rob Mackowiak and numerous others.
For teams carrying 12 pitchers or trying to overcome a run of injuries, the "super utility" player can be a godsend. So why don't more players try it? In part, because the job requires fearlessness, a lack of ego and a complete disregard for the potential embarrassment involved.
Carl Yastrzemski was a great player, but when the Red Sox asked him to play third base in 1973 and he made 12 errors in 31 games, first base and left field started looking pretty good. Money, obviously, is a factor as well. If you can make $3 million a year as a mediocre regular in the big leagues, who needs the aggravation?
Jolbert Cabrera of the Mariners is so conscious of the "utility stigma," that he prefers to be known as a swingman. "A utility player is just a backup," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "If you get that label, it's bad. I've fought that label."
Perhaps no player embodies the super-utility mindset more than Freel, who displayed his hyper-aggressive tendencies during a Reds-Dodgers game in May, when he jumped several rows into the stands in pursuit of a foul ball and accidentally kicked an elderly woman in the head.
Freel felt bad about the repercussions, but didn't regret going all out. He's hard-wired that way-something umpire Eric Cooper discovered when Freel grilled him on the ground rules before a game at Wrigley Field. Freel asked Cooper if it was permissible to jump on the railing and then the dugout in pursuit of a ball. And while we're at it, he asked, is it OK to use the camera beside the dugout as a springboard into the stands?
"Eric just looked at me and said, 'Do you have some kind of disease, bro?' " Freel said. "Everybody here thinks I'm a little bit whacko anyway, but I don't care."
Freel is also into leather. On his tour of the field, he's scavenged outfield gloves from Ruben Mateo and Adam Dunn and a third baseman's mitt from Brandon Larson. He'll carry at least six gloves with him on the road at any one time.
A second baseman by trade, Freel is convinced the best utilitymen have to be infielders first, because chasing down a fly ball is much easier to learn than turning a double play. But the ability to play multiple positions is largely a reflection of attitude.
"Just see the ball, pick it up and throw it," Freel said. "As a kid, you'd play every position and you wouldn't give a (bleep). But you didn't have 30,000 people watching you, either."
Wherever He's Needed
The winner of baseball's most valuable grunt award for 2004 is Figgins, who plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-8, 155-pound frame. He filled in at center field for the Angels when Garret Anderson missed time with a back injury, then moved to third when Troy Glaus went down for the year. He's also played left, right, second and short.
Figgins steals bases, turns singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and proves daily that success is more a testament to heart size than media-guide dimensions.
Ask Angels general manager Bill Stoneman for his take on Figgins' best position, and Stoneman replies, "Baseball player."
The Rockies selected Figgins in the fourth round in 1997, but were so underwhelmed after watching him in the minors that they traded him to the Angels for Kimera Bartee. Now Figgins is establishing a reputation as a solid big leaguer-one position at a time.
"There's just one problem with him," Stoneman said. "We can't clone him."