Long way from Shea for former Mets star Ordonez

Updated: February 20, 2007, 2:38 AM ET
Associated Press

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The first day of Rey Ordonez comeback couldn't have been any more humbling. Or wet.

The former Gold Glover with the New York Mets began his first day on a baseball diamond since 2004 by fielding ground balls hit by a Mariners coach.

Soon, the 36-year-old was gobbling grounders in the rain Monday. A drizzle became a wind-blown downpour. The rain wiped out the rest of batting practice and had Ordonez briskly walking back into the clubhouse. His blue, No. 10 practice jersey was drenched.

Once heralded as the "second coming" of Ozzie Smith by the Hall of Fame shortstop himself, Ordonez is trying to make a last-place team as a non-roster invitee and backup middle infielder on a minor league contract.


"For my son (Anthony Rey) and my daughter (Sonia Stephanie)," said Ordonez, the Cuban defector and veteran of 973 games who hasn't done much more than work out in a gym just for fitness since he walked away from the Chicago Cubs 31 months ago.

"The last two years they've been asking me, 'Daddy, why don't you play again?' Well, here I am.

"I can play two, maybe three more years. Maybe not play everyday, but I can be on a 25-man roster."

This remote chance is perhaps the final one of a rise-and-fall career that began with a soaring Mets debut in 1996. Ordonez completed an astounding relay throw to home plate from his knees on Opening Day against Smith's Cardinals. Afterward, Ozzie marveled "he's the second coming of me."

How far he's come -- and gone -- is remarkable.

The former star of Cuba's national youth team defected in 1993, during the World University Games in Buffalo, N.Y. The Mets acquired him later that year through a lottery.

Eight years later, he was at the White House with Gloria Estefan, meeting President Bush in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

"Coming from Cuba, I'd never seen anything like that before," he said, still smiling at the memory.

In between the escape and the executive mansion, Ordonez joined Smith, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin as the only NL shortstops to win three or more Gold Gloves since the award began in 1957.

Ordonez won his third consecutive one in 1999 while setting career highs of 154 games played, 60 RBIs and a .258 batting average. He set a major league record by not committing an error in his final 100 games as the Mets advanced to the NL championship series before losing to Atlanta.

Then his career began fading. During a game May, 29, 2000, at Dodger Stadium, he broke his left arm banging it into the batting helmet of F.P. Santangelo during a tag play. A plate and six screws into the arm later, he missed the rest of that season.

Ordonez now says the injury was not a turning point, that he maintained his offense in 2001 and '02.

But offense was never what made Ordonez special. Defense was his specialty and when that part of his game slipped, his offensive shortcomings became glaring. When the boos started at Shea Stadium, he called the New York fans "stupid" in a newspaper article at the end of the '02 season.

"Thing is, what they put in the paper was "The fans are stupid," Ordonez said. "What I said was, 'The fans are stupid. I want to win. I play hard.'

"The next day, I told the writer I was sorry. He said, 'Rey, it's too late. This is New York."

The Mets traded him to woebegone Tampa Bay two months later.

In his 34th game with the Devil Rays, he tore a ligament in his left knee diving for ball. He's played in 23 games and had 61 at bats since.

Seattle, the only team interested, sent a scout to Miami to see him last November. After a month of playing in Puerto Rico, he is behind dynamic, 25-year-old Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, All-Star Jose Lopez, 23, at second base and established utility man Willie Bloomquist.

General manager Bill Bavasi said that if Ordonez does not make the team, Seattle will release Ordonez rather than offer him a Triple-A assignment.

Mariners manager Mike Hargrove called it "an uphill climb for him."

"But I won't say he can't make the club, because he certainly can," Hargrove said.

Despite all that has changed, for the worse, since his "stupid" comment, Ordonez said he has no regrets about New York.

"No regrets," he said, smiling broadly. "It's my best city."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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