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Catching up with ... former Oriole Tom Shopay

The fan mail rolls in, maybe 20 cards a month to Tom Shopay's home in Miami, Fla. His autograph is what people want and Shopay, a .201 lifetime hitter, is happy to oblige.

Some folks compliment him on his baseball success.

"I'm thinking, 'Have they got the right guy?'" said Shopay, 72.

Others sum up his five-year Orioles career, saying, "You were a good utility player," or, "I wish you'd gotten more playing time."

So does Shopay. In seven big league seasons between 1967 and 1977, the outfielder averaged 49 plate appearances a year, often entering games late as a pinch runner, or for defense. He learned to keep a bag packed. Eight times, Shopay was sent to the minors, always to return.

"Guys used to joke that I was up and down so much, I racked up all these frequent-flyer miles between Baltimore and Rochester (the club's Triple-A affiliate)," he said. "A couple of times, I wanted to leave the game and say, 'This isn't working.' You feel cheated, not being able to play and to prove yourself. I did it in Triple-A (.284 in nine seasons), but with the Orioles, I got caught up in the numbers game. It's tough to break into a lineup with outfielders like Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Don Buford and Merv Rettenmund."

Shopay came to Baltimore in 1969 for $25,000 from the New York Yankees, who'd picked him in the 34th round of the 1965 draft. He played 36 games for New York.

Dealt to Baltimore in winter, Shopay received a card in the mail. "Welcome to the Orioles," it read. "Signed, Brooks Robinson."

"That's the type of guy Brooks was," Shopay said.

The Orioles liked Shopay's hustle and gumption, but shipped him to the minors. Promoted in 1971, he hit .257 (19-for-74) and helped them reach the World Series. There, he went 0-for-4 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, four games to three. He treasures two scuffed balls from that classic — one used in each city — which he keeps in his home beside his framed uniforms from the Yankees and Orioles.

Once, Shopay told a Sun reporter, "They'll have to rip the uniform off me to get me out of this game."

That gritty mindset served him well for a decade.

"I told myself that every at-bat and every chance in the field was a necessity; I had to do something," he said. "They needed an excuse not to keep me."

To show his versatility, he took up ... catching?

When the Orioles traded catcher Andy Etchebarren to the California Angels, in 1975, Shopay began using a catcher's mitt to shag flies during batting practice. Manager Earl Weaver took note.

"You ever caught before?" Weaver asked.

"Hell yeah, Earl," Shopay said, who'd done so for two innings in college.

"OK, you're our No. 3 catcher," said the manager, who had him practice with coach Cal Ripken Sr., a former backstop. Teammates joked that, at 5 feet 9, Shopay didn't have to squat behind the plate.

He wasn't called on until the last game of the year.

"We're in Yankee Stadium, and the lineup is on the locker room door, and I'm batting second, and there's a '2' after my name," Shopay said. "I said, 'Oh my God, I'm catching!'

"So I go out and get to work. But what do I know? Once, between innings, Elston Howard, the Yankees first base coach, stops me on the way to the dugout. He says, 'Tom, close your legs — I can see every sign that you're giving.'"

The Orioles lost, 3-2. Shopay threw out one runner, Roy White, attempting to steal, then picked Rick Dempsey off third base. Afterward, Weaver praised Shopay and asked how the first-timer managed to call a smart game.

Simple, Shopay said: "Whatever the count was, I called the pitch I never wanted to hit on that count."

Parting ways with the Orioles in 1977, he spent one year in the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system and a summer playing in Italy before retiring. Baseball didn't make him rich.

"My pension is almost twice that of my best salary as a player ($32,000)," he said.

An education major at Dean College, Shopay ran a nursery school for seven years, then partnered with his brother to manage a security firm for 25 more.

Divorced, he has four children, eight grandkids and a slew of keepsakes from his playing days, including autographed photos of himself with everyone from Mantle to Eddie Murray.

"The memories are great," he said. "I was there for Frank Robinson's 500th home run; same with Harmon Killebrew. I played in the World Series, hit a home run in Yankee Stadium and was part of Nolan Ryan's fourth no-hitter."

But that's not why fans remember him, Shopay said. They saw him as a plugger, a blue-collar player who battled to stay in the big leagues and did so without fanfare.

"I'm real to them," he said.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikeKlingaman

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