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THROWN FOR A LOOP : Tettleton Nonplussed as He Leads Orioles From Last to First

<i> Baltimore Sun</i>

Without the catcher, there is no hope, no miracle in the making, no possibility that a city’s dreams can come true on a baseball field.

Try to understand the story that unfolds night after night at Memorial Stadium here, and you come back to the strong, silent catcher with the calloused hands of a carpenter and bulging forearms. Mickey Tettleton is the indispensable man of the Baltimore Orioles. That’s not to diminish the exploits of Jeff Ballard or Gregg Olson or Cal Ripken Jr. or any of the other baseball players turned folk heroes. Tettleton is different. It’s not merely because he hits home runs, eats a certain sugar-coated breakfast cereal or stashes a stuffed toucan doll over his locker.

Tettleton touches the heart of this miracle, providing mystery in a tale that is veering toward fantasy. From last to first. From nowhere to stardom. He is the man given the rare second chance in life, the opportunity to play a game he loves and finally to play it well.

Tettleton possesses a mixture of confidence and wonderment. He expected thunderclaps this season, not a tornado of 20 home runs.

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He says there are days when even he can’t quite believe his enchanted spring. He looks at the list of American League home run leaders and sees his name with Rob Deer, Fred McGriff and Bo Jackson, and shakes his head. It’s a long season. There is the possibility his swing and this team could fall apart under the glare of a summer pennant race.

“Sometimes, when I look at the leaders, I do catch myself in awe,” he says.

Doesn’t everyone?

This is Mickey Lee Tettleton, 28, we’re talking about. Not Mickey Mantle. Sure, they’re Oklahomans, with that aw-shucks grace that plays easy in a big city. They even hit from both sides of the plate, too. But that’s where similarities end.

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Mantle was a superstar. Tettleton is a journeyman who could be a star, a man who once was released by the Oakland Athletics and hit 33 home runs in the first four years and 52 days of his major league career.

Tettleton even lost a home run hitting contest three years ago at Oklahoma State, finishing dead last with one homer behind Pete Incaviglia, Robbie Wine, Gary Green, Doug Dascenzo and a graduate assistant.

Now, Tettleton, expected to be selected to the American League All-Star team later this week, is taking the Orioles for a mystery tour fueled on Froot Loops.

“When you come into this league, you want the amazing year; you dream about it,” said Oriole first baseman Jim Traber. “Mickey is having that year. Hopefully, he can lead us all the way to the playoffs.”

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Others are rooting for Tettleton, too. Oakland General Manager Sandy Alderson says: “We’re happy for him. It’s a great story. No one in baseball is not surprised by Mickey, except maybe Kellogg’s.”

Oakland Manager Tony La Russa also looks on the Tettleton tale without regret.

“I like him,” he said. “I respect him. When a guy leaves your club, you always gauge your feelings by how much you want him to do well. I wanted Mickey Tettleton to do very, very well.”

Tettleton played football and baseball at Southeast High School in Oklahoma City and was all-conference and all-state as a second baseman and all-conference as a linebacker in his senior year. Not too many colleges came courting, so Tettleton decided to follow his father’s path and head to Oklahoma State.

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Back then, he was a singles hitter. Infielder the first year. Outfielder the second. And, finally, catcher.

“He was kind of a quiet, crazy guy,” said Traber, Tettleton’s Oklahoma State teammate for three seasons. “Very intense.”

Gary Ward, Oklahoma State’s coach, said Tettleton showed signs of power, hitting long line drives into the gaps.

The A’s selected Tettleton in the fifth round of the June, 1981 free-agent draft and signed him for an $18,000 bonus. Tettleton learned the catcher’s craft in three full minor league seasons and made his major league debut in 1984.

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But he never could hold the starting job. His average hovered around .200, and his defense was merely adequate. After the A’s acquired Ron Hassey to back up Terry Steinbach in 1988, Tettleton was out of work March 28.

“We attempted to make a trade, and no one was interested in him, including his present employers,” Alderson said. “Everyone figured he would be released.”

Tettleton actually was pleased to be let go.

“Mickey called me, and he wasn’t too upset about it,” said his father, Roy. “He said, ‘Yes, they released me.’ And I said, ‘Well, there you go.’ ”

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On April 6, Tettleton was signed to a triple-A contract by the Orioles and assigned to Rochester, N.Y. The Orioles brought him up May 9 and gave him a chance. That was all.

“Mickey had a reputation for being lazy,” said Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles’ bullpen coach. “I have not seen that here. People may have judged him that way because he is a slow mover. He is never in a hurry to do anything. But he is one of the hardest-working people I’ve seen in 31 years of baseball.”

Last year’s horrendous Oriole season actually worked in Tettleton’s favor. The team was dreadful, and he could regain his confidence in virtual obscurity. He batted .261 and hit 11 home runs in 86 games, numbers that gave the Orioles the push to ship Terry Kennedy to the San Francisco Giants and give the catcher’s job to Tettleton and Bob Melvin.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be a star--like a Johnny Bench or a Lance Parrish,” Tettleton said. “I thought I could be a good big league ballplayer.”

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This year, he proved himself and captured a city’s imagination. After striking out 16 times in his first 31 at-bats, he caught fire. Batting coach Tom McCraw told Tettleton to forget the strikeouts, ease his swing and aim for all fields.

“Most guys don’t get a second chance in this game like Mickey,” McCraw said. “He’s like a guy who gets a death sentence, and then gets a reprieve. What’s a little work for someone who just had the noose taken off his neck?”

The home runs started flying. Six in April. Seven in May. Five in June. And two already in July. But the transformation from player to symbol of a team occurred after his wife Sylvia’s televised confession that Mickey loves his Froot Loops.

“I just blurted it out,” she said. “It was just something between us. He ate them every morning during spring training.”

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Stop by his locker now, and you see hundreds of letters piled in front of his spikes. Fans by the dozen have mailed Tettleton miniature Froot Loops boxes to sign. A company in Ohio shipped him the stuffed bird doll; a toucan adorns the cereal box.

Says his mother: “Mickey always liked cereal better than his vegetables.”

Tettleton appears slightly embarrassed by all the attention.

“My wife made an innocent statement, and it got blown out of proportion,” he said. “But at least the fans of Baltimore are having some fun with it. It’s funny. It has skyrocketed. I like the cereal, but I’m not superstitious. I don’t have to eat them every day for breakfast.”

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