To be completely honest, I had Mark McLemore tabbed as just another managerial "bobo" when he signed a free-agent contract with the Texas Rangers last winter.
You know, a "go-fer," somebody Johnny Oates liked to have around. Since he came with a reputation as a utility man, I figured that just meant he was a versatile bobo: A drinking buddy (that was before I discovered that Oates doesn't drink); a straight man for the manager's one-liners; somebody who had learned how Johnny likes his coffee and who always brought pizza with him to the clubhouse for the coaches to share.
Yep, his nose would be a little brown, I figured. How else to explain this infatuation with a player who couldn't seem to hold a steady position and who had a .249 career batting average as the season began?
I'd seen McLemore play over the years, in California and Baltimore, and I hadn't been overly impressed. Clearly he was an overachiever who could disappoint you at any moment.
What I didn't realize is that McLemore is one of those players who has to be seen every day to be appreciated.
And that, surprisingly, is exactly what has happened in Texas.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the only Rangers player you have seen every stinkin' day:
Mark Tremmell McLemore.
With suitable apologies for earlier misconceptions, "Mac" is my nominee as the Rangers' most valuable player for the first "half" of the season.
It is trendy to argue that this "team" is its own MVP. That's more or less Oates' slant on the subject.
"To me, our MVP is the character of this ballclub," Oates said before last night's series finale in Cleveland. "What success we've enjoyed has come from the heart this club has played with.
"When you look at some of the injuries we've played with, injuries to Dean Palmer, to Will Clark, to Jeff Russell, to Juan Gonzalez, to Darren Oliver . . . we have to do things out of the ordinary to win ballgames. But it would be difficult to argue with anyone who believes that Mac has been our on-field MVP."
McLemore has exhibited all those traits -- character, heart, grit -- and maybe it has rubbed off a little in the clubhouse. Out of the ordinary is precisely what he has been.
Naturally, you can't ask the self-effacing McLemore to beat his own drum. That's not going to happen.
"It's been a good first half," he said modestly after doubling home the winning runs in the eighth inning of Tuesday's huge 7-6 victory against the Indians. "I'd like to be doing some things better, but you really can't think about it right now. It's only half a season. At the end of the season, I'll look back and see what I've done."
Some of us will take this upcoming All-Star break to get a jump on things. Go ahead, browse through your daily Rangers stats and see what I mean.
There he is, among the team leaders with a .291 batting average. He leads the club with 42 runs scored. He's second in stolen bases with 17 (and well on his way to besting the career high of 25 he had with the Angels eight years ago).
"He knocks in big runs, steals a base, moves runners around, sacrifices, takes the extra base," said general manager Doug Melvin, another former member of the Orioles organization who is rightfully proud of having signed McLemore in mid-December. "He's the kind of player a manager loves.
"He got us on a roll as a ballclub on how to play the game. He shows it with his day-in and day-out effort and his attitude. His versatility put a stamp on what we want to try to do here. He's the kind of guy who comes to the ballpark and does whatever you ask of him and he does it without complaint. Bat him anyplace in the order and he never says a word."
McLemore is easy to abuse. He never whines, never whimpers, never begs out of the lineup. In the final game of the Seattle series Sunday, Randy Johnson hit him in the foot with a 90-mph fastball.
That should be good for at least a week on the bench, if not a stint on the already crowded disabled list.
But that's not McLemore.
"I flew in here to Cleveland thinking, 'Geez, we've got Clark hurt, now Mac's out, what are we gonna do?'" Melvin said. "Then Johnny tells me he's in the lineup. I said, 'You've got to be kidding.' "
Just pencil him in and point him in the right direction. Barring another disaster, McLemore's first day off this season will come with Monday's All-Star break.
In a way, that's too bad, too.
The NFL makes room in the Pro Bowl for special teams players. The NBA has its "Sixth Man Award." Baseball should figure out a way to honor its true utility men, quality players such as McLemore.
Someplace on each All-Star team there should be a spot for players who sacrifice personal numbers for the good of the team.
"He's more than a utility man," Melvin said. "He's an everyday player who plays different roles."
And he deserves an Oscar.