Utility men keep on Labor-ing

Utility men keep on Labor-ing

They bring their lunch pails to the job site every day, but these guys don't get the working man blues.

They don't show up in the statistical leader columns, they don't get the All-Star contracts and they're not usually the ones getting Most Valuable Player votes at the end of the season.

But the utility man, baseball's version of the jack-of-all-trades laborer, is not forgotten and should be honored, especially on Labor Day.

Leading the way is the utility man who's made the most impact on a winning team this season, Chone Figgins of the Angels.

Figgins is the Major League poster child for the new era of "super-utility" players -- guys who can fill in at multiple positions, provide versatility that gives managers options for getting the matchups they desire, and generally make things happen by providing some kind of spark, be it offensive or defensive.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who has reigning American League MVP Vladimir Guerrero on his roster, is the first to recognize that Figgins has provided a lot more than he could have ever imagined.

"His ability to play a number of positions and play them well is why we are very, very comfortable to move him around and use him where we need to," Scioscia says.

And just how valuable has Figgins been? Consider this: Figgins started the first 25 games of the regular season at second base in place of Adam Kennedy, who had a long stint on the disabled list with torn ligaments in his right knee.

By that time Kennedy returned, third baseman Dallas McPherson was ailing from what turned out to be a season-ending bone spur in his hip. No problem for Figgins, who filled in ably at third base after learning the position on the fly while subbing for injured Troy Glaus last year.

And now, with center fielder Steve Finley struggling, Figgins is starting in center field, the seventh position he has started at this season -- the others being second base, third base, shortstop, right field, left field and designated hitter.

The reason Figgins stays in the lineup every day, though, is more about what he brings offensively.

He is the Angels' switch-hitting leadoff man, their best bunter, their fastest baserunner and the stolen-base leader on the team with the most steals in baseball.

"I can play all of those positions," Figgins says. "It is not about my skills. It is preparing my mind to be able to play."

That's pretty much the shared mind-set of all the best utility men.

One of them is Willie Bloomquist of the Mariners, who finally got a chance to show off his skills in Seattle before a recent hamstring pull likely ended his season.

Still, Bloomquist's contributions haven't been forgotten.

"Willie certainly has been a sparkplug for us," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove says. "He's done a good job for us, and after we gave him a chance [to play everyday], he has really shined."

Bloomquist had been a useful backup over the past three seasons, playing all four infield and three outfield positions at one time or another, but he moved into the Mariners' starting lineup on July 2 when the team traded Bret Boone.

Bloomquist played in 46 of 50 games, going 50-for-181 (.276) to raise his batting average from .197 on July 1 to .257.

Bloomquist had 15 doubles, two triples, a career-high 14 stolen bases and 22 RBIs, and also had a 12-game hitting streak at the time of his injury.

But the most impressive thing about Bloomquist was his all-out desire to win. Even though the Mariners are having a disappointing season, Bloomquist ran the bases like his life depended on it, and his hustle served as an example to his young teammates.

"It's frustrating," Bloomquist says of his injury. "I enjoyed playing every day, and that, more than anything, frustrates me. I started to enjoy playing again and actually felt part of something. It was fun.

"I know I can do a lot more than I have done. But hopefully, I have done enough to warrant more playing time when I do come back. I have done my best to get rid of that [utility player] tag. I like to think that maybe I have opened up an eye or two, and shown that I can be an everyday player."

"Just always be ready, because you never know when you're going to get a chance to perform."
-- Robert Fick

That's how all super-utility players seem to feel, and it might be the reason they're so effective.

"Super" Joe McEwing, for example, is still enjoying a big-league career because for years, he's been one of the most versatile players in the game.

McEwing, 32, is one of the old hands on a young, developing Kansas City Royals squad. He's played seven different positions, as he's always done, and never complains about where he's put or where he's batting.

"He's the perfect extra guy," Royals bench coach Bob Schaefer says. "He knows his role, he accepts his role. He's the perfect team player. He can pinch-run, pinch-hit and play a lot of positions. He knows what he's doing; he won't mess the game up."

He also won't mess up the young players. McEwing has taken on a sort of leadership role and says the kids are responding.

"That's part of your status in the game," McEwing says. "Along the way I've been fortunate to be taught by a lot of great people. The game is like a fraternity. I've been able to pass down what I've learned."

The utility role is all about learning.

Players talented enough with the glove to field different positions and gifted enough with the bat to be able to come through in the clutch, despite not having many at-bats, are priceless.

There's Damian Jackson and Robert Fick of the San Diego Padres, Abraham O. Nunez of the St. Louis Cardinals and Marco Scutaro of the Oakland A's, all of whom get huge hits and play solid defense in place of much bigger names who are stuck on the disabled list.

Freddy Sanchez of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Luis Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies and Nick Punto of the Minnesota Twins put in overtime all over the field to help where and when they're needed.

And then there are veterans like Miguel Cairo of the New York Mets, Frank Menechino of the Toronto Blue Jays and the venerable Carlos Baerga of the Washington Nationals.

The one thing that ties them all together, in addition to the lunch-pail mentality and desire to go to work for a living every day, is a winning attitude.

"That's the way guys like us have to think about it," says Fick, who can be seen playing outfield, first base or even catching for the first-place Padres.

"Just always be ready, because you never know when you're going to get a chance to perform."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Mike Scarr, Jim Street, Dick Kaegel and Lyle Spencer contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.