By Staci Wolfson
At the start of the 2006 season, the Orioles were more than adequately stocked in the outfield and at first base.
With five regular outfielders, three players ready to start in the outfield, at first base or in the designated hitter spot, one utility man and one displaced catcher looking for a home at first base, the Opening Day roster seemed to have limited room for off-season acquisition Kevin Millar.
(Photos: Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Despite this, the 34-year-old, with his reputation as a versatile, upbeat clubhouse leader, has found a home for himself in Baltimore. Whether he is taking grounders at first or serving as the DH, Millar said his role on the team is “just to be the idiot.”
As the lead “idiot” of the 2004 Red Sox, the Californian helped bring Boston its first title in 86 years by lightening the mood in the clubhouse and leading Boston’s “Cowboy Up” rally cry.
Baltimore’s clubhouse, last year plagued by tension between players, brushes with the law, steroid allegations, a mid-season collapse and eight straight losing seasons, has welcomed the much-needed laughter.
“It's a different day every day,” pitcher Bruce Chen said. “You never know what he's going to do. Sometimes I come to the clubhouse and he doesn't look at me and I start being suspicious. I don't know if he's trying to pull a prank on me or anything but the guy is great. The guy, whether he's hitting or not, he’s always the same. He's always happy, he's always trying to make people laugh. He's not a clown but he likes to go out there and relax every one in a humorous way.”
But behind the joking and pranks, Millar is a serious competitor. Despite the Orioles’ current struggles, he said he has not given up on the team turning it around this season.
“I think we've been playing good baseball,” Millar said. “We've lost some tough games but we played good. Our pitching is really starting to turn a corner. But we need to get some W's and if we get hot here we can make this thing interesting.”
Coming off an unremarkable contract year, Millar has done little to improve his offensive numbers. He has struggled in the first half, posting a .248 batting average with six home runs and 33 RBIs.
However, Millar hasn’t stopped working to improve.
“It's been a tough year so far personally, but we have a lot of baseball left,” he said. “One thing about baseball is it's a long season and one game can make you lock in personally and do well. I just think I've been in a battle with it all year just trying to get that swing down.”
But Millar’s numbers were not what put him on the Baltimore payroll.
Along with fellow veteran Jeff Conine, the front office brought in Millar to improve the clubhouse chemistry, give manager Sam Perlozzo options at first base, in left field and in the DH role and to use years of experience to mentor younger players.
Rookie Brandon Fahey said having Millar as a teammate has helped him a lot so far this season.
“He's a down-to-earth guy," Fahey said. “He doesn't think he's better than anybody else. He'll tell you whatever, he doesn't hide anything. He's always positive. Say you get out or something, nobody might say anything but he'll tell you to keep your head up, good at-bat.”
One of the oldest players on the Orioles roster, Millar made his professional debut with the independent Northern League’s St. Paul Saints. He signed a year later with the Florida Marlins and played in his first MLB game in 1998.
Chen said he believes Millar’s past is what makes him a great guide for the rest of the team.
“The guy is good, he's very positive,” Chen said. “He comes from two teams that won, the Marlins and the Red Sox, and he's just a tremendous guy and I have a lot of respect for him. He's a good teammate, a very good teammate.”
Shortstop Miguel Tejada, perceived to be the Orioles’ leader for the past two seasons, said he agrees that Millar is an asset to the team.
“He's great,” Tejada said. “We always joke and he always has something to say and at the same time he's a great teammate because he always gives us some energy. A guy like that, he always talks, he always jokes and that's good to have a guy like him.”
Issue 1.12, July 13, 2006