Tacked to a bulletin board in the Orioles' clubhouse at
Camden Yards, next to the daily posting of the lineup, is a
cartoon torn from a local newspaper of outfielder Melvin Mora,
the American League's unlikely batting leader. BASEBALL'S LATEST
STAR, it reads. Drawn small under Mora's beaming mug is a person
looking through a telescope and wondering aloud, a "SHOOTING" STAR
OR "RISING" STAR?
The question applies not only to Mora but also to his equally
unheralded companions atop the AL leader board. Of the
league's top 10 hitters through Sunday, only Seattle's
Ichiro Suzuki and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra had made an
All-Star team; Mora and Bill Mueller of the Red Sox, the No. 2
hitter in the league, don't even appear on this year's
ballot. Only Ichiro and Frank Catalanotto of the Blue Jays had
ever hit .300 in a full season.
The 32-year-old Mueller, who spent his first seven seasons in the
National League, had a .286 career average when he signed as a
free agent with Boston in the off-season; his hot bat enabled the
Red Sox to trade third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to the
Diamondbacks for righthander Byung-Hyun Kim on May 29. Rangers
third baseman Hank Blalock, the AL's No. 3 hitter, hit .211
in 49 games as a rookie last year. But the biggest surprise has
been Mora, who topped the AL with a .360 average and ranked
second to Toronto's Carlos Delgado in on-base percentage
plus slugging percentage (OPS, 1.050).
In his four-plus seasons in the majors with the Mets and the
Orioles, the 31-year-old Mora has largely served as a utilityman.
But after playing second base, shortstop and all three outfield
spots earlier in the year, Mora has found a home in the outfield,
where he has played mostly in left for the last month and
hasn't made an error. "He's blessed with
tremendous athletic ability to be able to play all those
different positions," says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove.
"But he's cursed because his value as a utility player
has increased, and before now that had taken away every-day at
June 22, 2003
During a difficult 2002--his brother was murdered in his native
Venezuela in April, and his brother-in-law was killed in a car
accident in July--Mora hit just .195 in the second half of the
season to finish at .233. After injuries sidelined leftfielders
Marty Cordova, B.J. Surhoff and Larry Bigbie this year, Mora
became a regular. Now the Orioles are juggling the lineup around
him. "I'm much more relaxed out there every day in the
same spot," says Mora. "People don't realize how
exhausting it is to keep changing positions."
In being able to focus on one position, the 5'11",
198-pound Mora has been working out harder than ever in the
weight room to strengthen his legs, something he's avoided
doing in the past. "I don't have to worry about being
as flexible and moving side-to-side playing in the
outfield," he says. "With a stronger lower body I'm not jumping
into balls as much at the plate."
Another key for Mora in his bid to sustain his blistering start
will be maintaining his new-found discipline at the plate.
Orioles coaches thought that Mora was swinging for the fences
last season when he had a career-high 19 home runs. This season,
though he is third on the team with 10 homers, Mora is seeing
4.15 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.95 last year, and is
hitting 50% more ground balls as a result of a shorter swing.
"In the past three weeks I've seen him swing at one bad
pitch up," Hargrove said last Saturday. "Last year he
swung at a lot of those. That's made all the difference."
As for Mora, he's just happy to be playing every day. "I don't want
to be considered a utility guy anymore," he says. "I'm an outfielder now."
Out of Leftfield
The American League has a history of players coming out of
nowhere to win the batting title. Here are the AL batting
champions who had the lowest career averages entering the seasons
in which they won their first crown. --David Sabino
Player Team Year Winning Avg. Career Avg.
Alex Rodriguez Mariners 1996 .358 .224
Paul O'Neill Yankees 1994 .359 .268
John Olerud Blue Jays 1993 .363 .269
Al Kaline Tigers 1955 .340 .274
Norm Cash Tigers 1961 .361 .275
Mickey Vernon Senators 1946 .352 .275