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Shane Turner Branches Out, Fills In Nicely for Mariners : Baseball: Rather than retire at 29, former Cal State Fullerton infielder takes utility-man route for return to majors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sports section is a staple of triple-A clubhouses, as much a player’s companion as a bag of sunflower seeds and usually more worn than a batting-practice ball on a rainy day.

Minor leaguers love to check out the box scores to see how guys they know are doing. They scan major league roundups to see who got hurt. They scour the transaction column to see who got sent up, sent down or shipped out.

Anything that could affect their status, they latch onto like the handle of a Louisville Slugger.

But there have been times the past few years when Shane Turner, former Cal State Fullerton infielder and potential career minor leaguer, couldn’t bear to look at the sports pages.

More than seven seasons in the minors, including parts of six in triple A, tends to dull the senses of even the keenest news hound.

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“There have been periods of time when I didn’t even pick up a paper,” said Turner, a Seattle Mariner utility player for the past three weeks. “You see guys called up and doing well, and you know you could have done the same. It just adds to the frustration.

“I didn’t want to know what was going on in the big leagues, because I wanted to think I was at the top of the game and concentrate on that. You can’t do your job worrying about what’s happening above you.”

For so many years, everything seemed to be happening above Turner. A sixth-round pick of the New York Yankees in 1985, it took only three seasons for Turner to reach the triple-A level. But instead of accelerating on to the major leagues, Turner’s career went into neutral.

Turner, the shortstop on Fullerton’s College World Series championship team in 1984, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1987, and the Phillies eventually traded him to the Baltimore Orioles in 1989.

In four seasons (1988-91), Turner played all of 22 major league games, including a mere four in 1991 for Baltimore, which didn’t offer him a contract after the season.

Turner and his wife, Beth, had their first child, a son, last October, and Turner turned 29 in January, a combination of events that led to some soul-searching.

“I was close to retiring,” said Turner, who ranks among the Titans’ career top five in games (246), at-bats (848), runs (164), hits (276) and doubles (54). “I had a good year at (triple-A) Rochester (.282, 57 RBIs) and thought I had a chance to win a utility job in spring training, but they didn’t even offer a contract.

“I had a son, and I had to start thinking what was best for him. The pay and benefits aren’t good enough to keep playing in the minor leagues, and there’s not a lot of stability. I finally realized I’m not 20 anymore and playing for the love of the game.

“As I got older, there came a point when I said, ‘How much longer can I wait?’ ”

Turner was considering returning to Fullerton for one semester to finish his degree in sports management or pursuing coaching positions. But Beth had the answer.

“She said she’d rather I play one year too long than quit a year too soon,” Turner said. “With expansion coming, we figured I’d play one more year and evaluate the situation at the end of the season. My love for the game and the support from my wife kept me playing.”

And Turner hopes a recent turn of events will keep him playing beyond this season.

Turner, who signed a free-agent contract with Seattle in February, was having a fine season at triple-A Calgary, batting .292 with 16 doubles and 25 RBIs, when Mariner utility man Greg Briley went on the disabled list because of an elbow injury July 7.

Turner, who has played every position, including pitcher, in the minor leagues, was called up and had an RBI double against Toronto in his first at-bat for the Mariners.

Filling in occasionally for third baseman Edgar Martinez, who has a nagging shoulder injury, pinch-hitting and spotting some time in the outfield, Turner is batting .296 (eight for 27) with three doubles and five RBIs.

Turner hasn’t been able to turn the Mariners around--they’re still in last place with the worst record in baseball--but he has turned some heads.

“He’s really stepped in and filled a role for us,” Seattle Manager Bill Plummer said. “It’s hard to say whether he’ll stay with us, but I’d like to work it out so he can. He’s played well enough to stay. We’ve been pleasantly pleased with the results we’ve gotten from him.”

Turner realizes he might be back in Calgary this weekend, but regardless of what happens, he believes this stint in the major leagues justified his decision to remain in the game.

“I’ve gotten a chance to display my talents and hopefully lay the groundwork for a lengthy stay in the big leagues,” said Turner, a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder who bats left-handed. “Being able to contribute has made it more special--I’ve been one of the players and not just a body filling a uniform.

“I have to contribute and be successful for a longer period of time, but I think I’ve shown I can handle a utility role in the big leagues. I have no problems adjusting to different situations in the field and at bat.”

Or to the major league lifestyle; now that’s something Turner can get used to. With the minimum major league salary at $110,000 a year, Turner will probably make more in a month at Seattle than he would all season in triple A.

“It’s a lot easier to take care of your family on that type of salary,” Turner said. “And it’s a different atmosphere up here. You walk into a stadium and there’s a minimum of 20,000 fans. Your adrenaline starts to flow, and there’s so much more energy. It’s a wonderful life.”

It took a long time--and a longer resume--for Turner to begin living it. He was drafted as a shortstop and did well for the Yankees, batting .320 at Class-A Ft. Lauderdale in 1986 and .334 at double-A Albany (Yankees) and Reading (Phillies) in 1987.

But the Phillies thought Kenny Jackson was a better shortstop prospect and moved Turner to third. Turner has better-than-average speed, a solid glove and good arm but didn’t think he had enough power to be a regular third baseman.

So he figured he’d better branch out.

He began playing some outfield in the Baltimore organization, and two winters ago he learned how to catch. He has caught a few games--and even made a pitching appearance--in the past two years.

“Baseball is a game of survival, and I saw myself more in the role of utility man,” Turner said. “I never did one thing so well that a team would put me in a starting spot every day, but I like this--there’s a certain challenge to it.

“I’m the 25th man, but I’ll accept any role. I’m not real choosy. I’d rather do this than play every day in the minor leagues.”

And it beats not playing at all. Turner didn’t fear life after baseball--he feels he’ll be successful in whatever career he eventually lands--but it would have been a difficult transition.

“It’s scary in a sense that I’m a very competitive person and I’d never again be able to compete as a professional,” Turner said. “It would have been hard to fill that void again.”

The demands of parenthood would have occupied more of Turner’s time and attention, and the birth of his son, Troy, caused Turner to re-evaluate his priorities last winter. But, in a surprising twist, Troy may have kept his dad in the game.

“I wanted to take care of him, and if that meant it was in my best interest to quit baseball, I was ready to do that,” Turner said. “But I also wanted to stay long enough so my son could watch me play and understand what I do.”

And maybe read about him in the sports section.


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