Former Oriole Gonzales gets his second (base) chance with Angels

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is a delicious coincidence. Mark McLemore washes out of the California Angels organization and ends up getting regular playing time at second base in Baltimore. Rene Gonzales never gets a chance to play regularly with the Orioles and ends up as the everyday second baseman in California.

That's right. Gonzo, the consummate utility man, has supplanted promising Bobby Rose in the Angels lineup. He has five home runs and has been one of the club's most productive hitters, entering yesterday with a .333 batting average and an even bigger smile on his face than usual.

That's right. Gonzo, who showed up at almost every defensive position for the Orioles during his three-year career in Baltimore, finally has settled into one in his first year in California. It is a surprise to everyone but him.

"That was always a goal," Gonzales said from Boston, where the Angels wrap up a three-game series today. "I was never content with a utility role, even though that is how I've been labeled."

Keep in mind, however, that this is one of those guys who was no lock to have any kind of major-league role after he closed out the 1991 season with the American League East champion Toronto Blue Jays. He went to spring training with the Angels as a non-roster invitee and has emerged -- like McLemore -- as one of the reasons for his club's surprising start.

The Angels entered yesterday two games over .500 (18-16), even though they had gotten just six victories from the three-man nucleus of the starting rotation. Big offensive performances from Junior Felix, Hubie Brooks and Gonzales have kept them in business until Mark Langston, Jim Abbott and Chuck Finley can get back in stride.

Gonzales is tied with Brooks for the club home run lead. He has been one of the team's most consistent hitters, and Rose has been one of the least. Gonzales is back home in California and having the time of his life.

"I have a lot of family and friends there," he said. "They are really getting a kick out of this."

He considers Baltimore his second home, and he'll be making his first visit later this week, when the Angels arrive for a three-game weekend series at Camden Yards.

"Of course, I'm looking forward to it," he said, "especially with the new ballpark. I have a lot of friends there. Last year when I came back, the fans really made me feel welcome. I look at that place as home, too."

But the place where Gonzales really is feeling at home is the Angels starting lineup. There are varying theories about his new-found success at the plate. Manager Buck Rodgers, for instance, said that he finally has learned how to hit the breaking ball. But Gonzales said that it is just a matter of getting a chance to play regularly.

"Everybody has been looking for some great big answer," he said. "I don't know, but I worked really hard over the winter and I've been getting to play. It's great. I've always felt that if I got a chance to perform, I would get an everyday job. It may have finally happened here.

"I'm not facing batting practice pitches every day. I'm getting good, quality pitches every day and getting confident. With confidence comes good baseball."

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Money Well-Saved Dept.: Remember when first baseman Franklin Stubbs was at the top of the Orioles' free-agent wish list a couple of years ago? Remember how he and a few other free agents kept the 1990 winter meetings in a state of gridlock? Well, Branch Rickey was right. Sometimes the best moves are the ones that are never made.

As it turned out, the Orioles won the bidding war for Stubbs. They didn't get him. Now, the Milwaukee Brewers are trying to figure out what to do about him.

Stubbs batted .213 with 11 home runs in the first year of his three-year, $6.5 million contract. He is doing even worse this season, although Friday's pinch-hit grand slam gave him four homers and 16 RBI to go with his .198 average.

Brewers manager Phil Garner saw what Stubbs could do in Houston, where he hit 23 homers for the Astros in 1990. He thinks the big first baseman is just trying to do too much.

"Nobody has worked harder than Stubby," Garner said recently, "but sometimes you can go at it too much. I think he needs to relax. You can think about it too much."

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Still more Tigers tribulations: Detroit manager Sparky Anderson finally has seen enough. He has restructured the club's starting rotation at the expense of veteran pitchers Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell.

Third-year right-hander Mark Leiter will get a chance to pitch every fifth day, and don't be surprised if the club begins testing some of its more promising minor-league prospects. They could not do much worse than the four members who have followed Bill Gullickson in the rotation for the first six weeks of the season.

Terrell is 0-4 with a 6.69 ERA. Tanana is 1-3 with a 7.07 ERA. Eric King is 2-3 with a 7.55 ERA, and Scott Aldred entered yesterday's start with an 0-3 record and 7.48 ERA. If there was ever a time to shake things up, this is it.

"After looking the whole thing over for 30 games, you better quit living in a dream world and make these kids come and survive," explained Anderson.

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Milestone and millstones: Kansas City Royals designated hitter George Brett and Brewers outfielder Robin Yount have a chance to reach 3,000 hits this year, but neither can be considered a lock to get there.

Brett entered yesterday's game needing 137 hits in 129 games to join the 3,000-hit club. He won't make it if he continues to swing the way he has in the first six weeks (.235). Yount needs only 94 more hits, but he also has struggled at the plate (.243).

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Deion Who? Dept.: The early-season excitement over Deion Sanders has subsided some, but he is being replaced in the public consciousness by fellow two-sport star Brian Jordan, who is doing for the St. Louis Cardinals in May what Sanders did for the Atlanta Braves in April.

Jordan, a Milford Mill High grad, is batting .341 this month (14-for-41) with four home runs and 14 RBI. His performance has been impressive enough to prompt the Cardinals to begin work on a four-year contract proposal they hope will keep him from returning to the NFL.

Veteran scout Hugh Alexander said they are doing the right thing.

"Deion Sanders is flamboyant," Alexander said, "but he's not anywhere as good as this guy."

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Trivia quiz: What American League umpire was once named Rookie of the Year in the Canadian Football League and played in two Grey Cup games (for the CFL title)?

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The Dutchman cometh: The Angels purchased the contract of veteran pitcher Bert Blyleven from the Triple-A Edmonton Trappers on Thursday, giving him a chance to resurrect his stellar career after two rotator cuff operations.

The Angels need to fill out their starting rotation after a 1991 season in which they got just 12 victories from the fourth and fifth slots. Blyleven needs a chance to prove he can still win at the major-league level. If he succeeds, he could win the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award for the second time in four seasons.

He would like to keep pitching for a couple more years and try to accumulate the 21 victories necessary to reach 300. He can reach a couple of other milestones in the next few weeks if all goes well. He needs nine strikeouts to tie Tom Seaver for third on the all-time list and 62 2/3 innings to reach 5,000.

"I'm a young 41," said Blyleven, who had a 3.63 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 44 innings of minor-league work. "I've got too much spirit and ability to feel that I've had enough."

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Trivial Hirsute Dept.: Chicago Cubs pitcher Danny Jackson became the umpteenth player to try to change his luck by changing his physical appearance.

Jackson, who is 1-10 since signing a mega-contract before the 1991 season, has cut his hair short and is sprouting a Fu Manchu mustache in an attempt to become more intimidating.

Who can blame him? It worked for Mark McGwire, who has a goatee and 15 home runs. It worked for Jack McDowell, who has a goatee and a 7-0 record. It even worked for Brady Anderson, who grew Elvis-like sideburns and had the best start of his career. No doubt, someone will win the pennant by a whisker this year.

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Non-support group: Milwaukee pitcher Bill Wegman may be throwing better than ever, but you'd never know it by his won-lost record. He's 2-4, though he has a 2.48 ERA and has pitched a minimum of 7 1/3 innings in each of his eight starts.

"If I keep pitching like this, I'm going to win a lot of games," Wegman said last week. "It's going to turn around. If it doesn't, I'll be 3-30 with a 1.00 ERA."

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Trivia answer: Montreal-born Jim McKean played Canadian football before entering the Umpire Development Program during the 1970s and working his way to the major leagues. The 46-year-old umpire also is a state age-group champion in racquetball, if anyone was wondering.

The inside corner

* Cleveland Indians shortstop Mark Lewis already has committed 14 errors this year. This wouldn't be so noteworthy if the club had not chosen Lewis over the highest-paid player on the club, Felix Fermin, who made 12 errors in 129 games last year.

* The Chicago Cubs lead the National League in intentional walks, with 23 in their first 34 games. The club's 15-19 record in those games should tell you how well the free passes worked.

* The Los Angeles Dodgers have been in last place for 20 straight days, just one short of the L.A. record, set in 1979.

* During the Milwaukee Brewers' seven-game losing streak that ended last week, the struggling offense scored a total of 14 runs and batted .207.

* The California Angels are off to a solid start, but they enter today with just six victories from left-handed starters Jim Abbott, Mark Langston and Chuck Finley.

* Struggling Texas Rangers reliever Terry Mathews wasn't introduced when he entered a game last week against the Orioles. It appeared to be just an oversight, but one front-office official told The Dallas Morning News that it was an attempt to keep Mathews from getting booed at Arlington Stadium.

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