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    W A L L   O F   F A M E

MARCH 31, 2004

Melvin Mora
2003 Futility Infielder of the Year

In the annals of futility infielders — of which somewhere there's a big book waiting to be written under my byline — perhaps no player has risen from such humble spare-part origins to attain the lofty heights of Melvin Mora. From his native Venezuela through a lengthy spell in the Houston Astros chain to Taiwan and then the New York Mets, Mora endured a globe-trotting odyssey just to reach the major leagues. Though his 2003 season, his third in a Baltimore Orioles uniform, was cut short due to a litany of injuries, Mora spent time leading the AL in batting average and on-base percentage, made his first All-Star team at age 31, and finished with a stellar .317/.418/.503 line and 15 homers. For these accomplishments, Mora has won the coveted (if belated) 2003 Futility Infielder of the Year award.

His was a long, hard road in more ways than one. Mora grew up in a family of eleven children in Agua Negra, Venezuela, finding tragedy at a young age. At six years old, he and a sister were with their father when he was shot and killed by a gunman, dying in young Melvin's arms. Amid poverty and strife, Mora found some escape in athletics. By age 15, he was playing professional soccer in Venezuela, and he soon became a member of the national team. He was also an amateur boxer as well as a baseball player.

In March 1991, the 19-year-0ld Mora was signed by the Houston Astros, and he spent the season playing for their Dominican Summer League entry, hitting .299/.356/.393 in 58 games. Though he followed that up with a disappointing .222/.323/.243 season in the Gulf Coast League, he made solid progress up the Astro chain, posting OBPs of .350 or better the next three seasons and getting his first taste of AAA action in 1995. But his momentum slowed; he split 1996 between AA Jackson and AAA Tucson and then spent '97 in AAA New Orleans. His plate discipline was good, but his power was lacking; he hit .257/.356/.330 with only 2 homers and 20 extra-base hits in over 400 plate appearances that year. Having completed sixth years in the Astros system, he became a free agent at the end of the season.

His career stalled in North America, Mora went to play for the Mercury Tigers of Taiwan's underworld-tainted Chinese Professional Baseball League. He hit .335 in a month and a half there, then returned to the States and contacted fellow Venezuelan Edgar Alfonzo, a coach for the Mets' Port St. Lucie team and the older brother of the Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo. Edgar put him in touch with then-assistant GM Jim Duquette, who gave Mora the opportunity to revive his career first at Port St. Lucie and then at AAA Norfolk.

Mora started the 1999 campaign in Norfolk but hit well enough to earn a promotion to the majors; he made his big league debut on May 30, starting at shortstop. Mora remained with the club for most of the next two months, seeing spot duty as a defensive replacement (usually for Rickey Henderson), pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner. He returned to the minors for August and finished at .303/.393/.451 in 82 games in AAA, earning a recall when the rosters expanded in September.

The Mets were in a tight race for the NL Wild Card, and manager Bobby Valentine used Mora wherever he could to garner the slightest of edges in the field or on the bases, a double-switch here, a pinch-run there. Mora played in 24 games in September, drawing only six plate appearances. As the month ended, the Mets were two games down in the Wild Card race with only three to play, but they tied the Cincinnati Reds on the last day of the season, in part thanks to Mora. In the Mets' 162nd game of the year, he had entered a tie ballgame with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the seventh as Henderson's pinch-runner, singled in the ninth, and scored the winning run on a wild pitch, forcing a one-game playoff for the Wild Card which the Mets won.

For the regular season, Mora had played in 66 games at six different positions (three outfield, three infield) for the Mets but gotten only five hits in 31 at-bats and 39 total plate appearances — a futilityman's line if ever was one existed. Mora wasn't done yet; he was included on the postseason roster and saw spot action in three games as the Mets defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks. But it was in the NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves where he gained national attention, becoming Melvin in the Middle during many moments of this memorable matchup (sorry):

  • With two outs in the bottom of the second inning of Game Two, Henderson left the game with flu-like symptoms to be replaced by Mora. The supersub homered off of Kevin Milwood to put the Mets in the lead, 2-0 and later scored another run after reaching on an error, but the Mets lost.
  • He went 2-for-4 in Game Three as the starting centerfielder but the Mets lost again, pushing them to the brink of a humiliating four-game sweep.
  • Entering Game Four as a defensive replacement, he drew a walk in his first at-bat and scored the game's go-ahead run as the Mets kept their slim hopes alive.
  • In Game Five he was the starting righfielder, and though he only went 1-for-6 in what turned out to be a 15-inning epic (won on Robin Ventura's Grand Single), he made a critical play in the 13th inning, throwing Bret Boone out at the plate to prevent the go-ahead run.
  • With the Mets fighting to even the series, Mora came on to pinch-hit in Game Six and singled, and he got another base hit amid a tenth-inning rally that put the Mets up 9-8. They ended up losing the game and the series, but the unlikely Mora had gone 6-for-14 with a homer and two steals and won himself a spot in the hearts of fans.

Mora went on to win himself a spot on the Mets roster in 2000, but his supersub role was upgraded when starting shortstop Rey Ordoñez broke his arm on May 29. Mora took over at shortstop, but while he hit better than the anemic .000rdoñez , the perception was that his defense couldn't measure up, and he was included in a trade to the Orioles for proven veteran Mike Bordick. Looking back, whatever gains the Mets made on defense were negligible enough to be offset by his bat:

         Inn  PO   A   E  DP  PCT   RF   
Bordick  459  71  140  7  24 .968  4.13 
Ordonez  354  58  108  6  20 .965  4.21 
Mora     346  56  105  7  16 .958  4.18 

          PA  Out    BA   OBP   SLG   EQA   WARP3
Bordick  211  149  .260  .321  .365  .239    0.7
Ordonez  155  117  .188  .278  .226  .178   -0.4
Mora     242  172  .260  .317  .423  .256    1.2
Nonetheless, the harsh lesson was that perception was everything under the Big Apple spotlight, and the New York Times headline that blared ("Time Has Run Out For Mora") was unsympathetic to his plight. Wrote William Rhoden:

Mora's problem is that for all of last year's heroics and versatility, the Mets never saw him as an everyday player. They saw him as an everyway player...

[manager Bobby] Valentine didn tell Mora that he was going to be traded, though when critics were sniping, Valentine reminded Mora that this was New York and this was a pennant race.

"With a guy like Melvin," Valentine said, "the most difficult thing he had was this idea that he had never been in the big leagues before, he had never been a full-time shortstop before and people wanted to hold him to a standard that was unlike the standard they held Rey to his first year at shortstop."

Ushered out of town, Mora joined an Orioles team bound for the depths of the AL East instead of the World Series. He took over Bordick's slot at shortstop and acquitted himself reasonably well, hitting .291/.359/.397. It wasn't a bad season for the 28-year-old rookie; for the year he'd played in 132 games, hitting .275/.337/.411 overall, with 8 homers. He backslid a bit in 2001, hitting only .250/.329/.362 with 7 homers and seeing about twice as much time in centerfield for the O's as he did at shortstop (Bordick had returned as a free-agent in the offseason). His season highlight came off the field, when his wife gave birth to quintuplets on July 28 (no fertility drugs were involved). Perhaps it was the pressure of suddenly having so many mouths to feed, but his performance suffered in the second half:
                BA   OBP   SLG  HR
Pre All-Star  .277  .360  .415   5
Post All Star .210  .283  .284   2

The next season found Mora returning to more of a utility role, as he saw time at five different positions, primarily leftfield and shortstop. His plate discipline and power improved, as he slugged a career-high 19 homers and walked 70 times. But his batting average suffered, limiting the impact of those two positive developments as he finished the year at .233/.338/.404. Or rather the perception of that impact; by Baseball Prospectus' advanced sabermetric measures, Mora's Equivalent Average improved from .256 to .269 (.260 is average) and was nearly three Wins Above Replacement better (6.8 to 4.1 using WARP3) — a very solid contribution. Again, however, he struggled after the All-Star break, hitting just .195/.317/.363 including a grisly 10-for-73 September. But Mora's season had an even darker side off the field, as his brother Jose was murdered in Venezuela in April, and three months later his brother-in-law died in New York.

Playing mostly leftfield but filling in all around the diamond, Mora put together an absolutely stellar first half in 2003, hitting.349/.443/.560 with 13 homers, running off a 23-game hitting streak, and gaining a spot on the AL All-Star team (shades of the 1999 postseason: he scored a run as a pinch-runner in the game-winning rally). He suffered a variety of ailments, however. Three weeks before the All-Star Game, Greg Maddux hit on the right hand, causing a bone bruise which cost him five games and sent his hitting into a tailspin. Four weeks later, he was hit in the face by Anaheim's John Lackey, sidelining him for a couple more games. And still it got worse; shortly after returning to the lineup, he suffered a wrist injury which kept him out for all of August. Two weeks after coming back, he tore a knee ligament, mercilessly ending his season and preserving another second-half fade (.188/.317/.275 with 2 homers).

In a benevolent mood, the Orioles rewarded Mora for his improved play, signing him to a three-year, $10.5 million deal this winter. But the money comes with a new twist: Mora will replace the departed Tony Batista as the Orioles' third baseman, a position where he's played only seven games in the bigs. As if that weren't enough of a stretch, a recent Washington Post article found him pondering an even bigger switch — to presidential politics in his unstable homeland, where the unemployment rate is 20 percent and the poverty rate 70 percent. That's a noble gesture, Melvin, but it's a hell of a lot easier to hit a curveball, field the hot corner, or stay healthy for an entire season than it is to clean up an entire country.

And besides, you've got a lot of mouths to feed already.