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He’s Seizing the Moment : O’Leary’s Shot Comes With Red Sox, Not Brewers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All Troy O’Leary ever desired was a chance to play.

But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

The Boston Red Sox provided the opportunity this season and O’Leary seized the day. His .327 average is in the stratosphere of American League hitters. That is satisfaction enough.

Still, it’d be nice if Milwaukee Brewer mucky-mucks slapped their foreheads. Just once.

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But, shucks, that’s all in the past.

O’Leary is in a pennant race now. Or was, until the Red Sox time-warped away from the New York Yankees. That is something O’Leary helped nudge along, which is credit-o-plenty.

Well, maybe a little moan from Brewer fans would massage the old ego a bit. Just one groan, please.

But, really, that’s ancient history.

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“People, reporters, keep asking me about Milwaukee,” O’Leary said. “I’m getting tired of it. I’m in this situation now . . .

” . . . They didn’t give me a shot. They should have at least given me a shot. They told me I needed more power. They said I couldn’t play defense. They said I didn’t have an arm. Whatever they thought was wrong is why I’m out of there and doing well here.”

O’Leary, with a grin and a grudge, doesn’t look back in anger, just mild irritation. Who can blame him? He toiled for seven years as an outfielder in the Brewers’ organization, from the day he left Cypress High to the moment in April when he was put on waivers.

The past two years he lived a yo-yo existence, shuttling between triple-A New Orleans and Milwaukee seven times. Every frequent-flier mile of it, he was certain his work would be rewarded.

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It was, sort of. The Brewers, in a can’t-you-stay-here’s-your-hat gesture, moved him off the 40-man roster this spring, a maneuver that required he be put on waivers first. O’Leary was claimed by the Red Sox in 30 minutes.

With that little bit of paperwork, O’Leary went from banging his head against the wall to banging balls off the Fenway Park fence.

“There were other teams who thought I could play,” O’Leary said. “Other players come up to me and say, ‘It’s good to see you get a chance.’ I guess I’ve convinced the people in Milwaukee.”

O’Leary was given his chance after Red Sox outfielder Mark Whiten was injured. By the time Whiten’s hamstring mended, O’Leary had passed the audition.

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“Every time I put him out there, he hit,” Manager Kevin Kennedy said. “Not only that, but he got big hits.”

Such as the 10th-inning home run O’Leary launched onto the net in left-center field at Fenway to beat Seattle in early June. Or the ninth-inning single that beat Baltimore two weeks later. Or the two-run home run against the Orioles two weeks ago, which helped the Red Sox to victory No. 9 in a 12-game winning streak.

The list goes on. O’Leary is fifth in the league in hitting, but it’s not cosmetic. He is batting nearly .350 with runners in scoring position and has knocked in 16 runs in two-out situations.

That’s a lot of pent-up aggression.

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“I see Milwaukee is playing infielders in the outfield . . . and catchers,” O’Leary said. “I wanted out of the organization.”

O’Leary isn’t bitter, just confused.

He produced when he was with the Brewers. He hit well on every level. So well, in 1992, that he was named most valuable player in the Texas League after leading the league in batting (.334).

O’Leary even hit well during his coffee breaks with the Brewers. He hit .293 in 19 games in 1993 and .273 in 27 games last season. O’Leary did his darndest to leave a lasting impression with a home run in the final game before the strike.

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Certainly, someone in the Brewers’ front office would take note? Someone did, he just wasn’t with the Brewers anymore.

Dan Duquette, the Red Sox’s general manager, worked in the Brewers’ scouting department for five years and was the scouting director when they drafted O’Leary in the 13th round in 1987.

Said Kennedy: “Dan called me and said, ‘There’s a guy on the waiver wire who has always been a pretty good player. Do you want to take a look at him?’ I did a little homework and said, ‘Sure.’ ”

Kennedy envisioned O’Leary as a reserve outfielder, mainly backing up center fielder Lee Tinsley. Turned out, Kennedy’s vision got better.

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Whiten had 25 home runs and 99 runs batted in with St. Louis in 1993. The Red Sox traded for him and handed over right field.

But while Whiten was a known quality, he wasn’t a healthy one. A rib injury cost him part of the 1994 season and a pulled hamstring knocked him out early this season.

O’Leary platooned with veteran Wes Chamberlain for a time. Then, in a game against Detroit, O’Leary smacked a pinch-hit, three-run home run.

“That was the really big hit for him,” Kennedy said. “After that, every time he played, he did something.”

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And did it so often, the Red Sox traded Whiten to Philadelphia on July 24. He was hitting .185 at the time; O’Leary was batting .336.

“Milwaukee had to be crazy,” Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn was saying by July.

O’Leary has been among the league leaders in hitting all season. He also has 10 home runs--which would put him second on the Brewers--25 doubles, five triples and 46 RBIs.

He has also handled right field at Fenway Park, where balls tend to rattle around in pinball-machine fashion. O’Leary has made only four errors and has robbed home runs three times this season.

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So much for those power and defense questions.

“The few times he played for us, he didn’t look like he was going to get the job done,” said Sal Bando, the Brewers’ senior vice president for baseball operations. “We were wrong about his hitting.”

Said Tinsley: “People have been surprised with what Troy has done. I’ve known him since the minor leagues. He’s full of surprises. He just needed a chance.”

Which O’Leary knew all along.

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“I always wanted to do well and I’m in the situation where I can,” O’Leary said. “I don’t think my time is going to be that long. In five to seven years, I’ll probably be out of the game. But I put in my time. I earned it.”


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