Over the last three seasons no ballplayer has put up bigger numbers than Melvin Mora. On July 28, 2001, his wife, Gisel, delivered five babies--born 10 weeks premature, each weak and fragile and weighing less than 21/2 pounds. Since then the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman has spooned out thousands of jars of pabulum; poured thousands and thousands of cups of formula, milk and juice; and diapered thousands and thousands and thousands of shiny bottoms. "In the beginning I needed 20 minutes to change the quints' diapers," Mora recalls. "Now I've got it down to under a minute." There's a saying that comforts major leaguers whenever their kids drive them nuts: Think of Melvin Mora.
Lately that same thought has discomfited opposing pitchers at Camden Yards. Mora's hitting stats this season have been as staggering as his parenting stats. The 32yearold Venezuelan has thrived batting ahead of cleanup man Miguel Tejada, the All-Star shortstop who was signed as a free agent last winter. Through Saturday, Mora's .426 onbase percentage led the American League, his .346 batting average ranked second, his .581 slugging percentage was fourth and his 96 runs ranked ninth. And having Mora hitting in front of him was a boost for Tejada, who was tied for tops in the majors in RBIs, with 125.
Mora and Tejada are not just the heart of the Baltimore lineup, along with catcher Javy Lopez, but also the soul of the team. They relieve the frustrations of teammates by goading them on the field and toying with them in the locker room. When Mora was named the American League Player of the Month for May, rookie Tim Raines Jr. innocently asked why Mora's locker was ringed by reporters. "I won the lottery," Mora said. Raines spent the next 10 minutes trying to get teammates to tell him how much Mora had won.
Always sharp and game-ready when he's in the lineup, Mora approaches the plate quickly and calmly, with a sense of barely suppressed glee. "Mel doesn't have a hole in his game," says Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "He can lay down a bunt on a dime, and he's got power to all fields. He's tremendously prolific."
Until last season--when he batted .317 in 96 games, hit safely in 23 straight games and was the only Oriole named to the AllStar team-- Mora was a marginal player who seemed destined to be more prolific as a dad. "Failure never scared me," he says. "You can't be scared when you grow up without a father."
The sixth of 11 children, Mora was raised in poverty in Agua Negra, which sits amid sugarcane fields southwest of Caracas. He was seven when his father, Jos�, died in his arms--victim of a gunman who mistook him for someone else. With his father gone, young Melvin helped pay the rent on the family's one-room apartment by mopping floors and selling ice cream.
Melvin didn't play organized ball until he was 15. In February 1991, at 19, he was signed by the Houston Astros as a nondrafted free agent for $3,000. For six years he languished in the farm system, never making Houston's 40man roster, and mulled jumping to the Venezuelan national soccer league, in which he had played goalkeeper as a teen.
Instead he went to Taiwan in 1998, playing for the Mercury Tigers in that country's pro league and hitting .335. In July '98 the New York Mets picked up Mora, and a year later, at 27, he finally made it to the majors. Mora was cast as an every-way player in New York, where he started at five positions. It was during the 1999 National League Championship Series, against the Atlanta Braves, that he became Melvin in the Middle, batting .429 and making four outfield assists. Still, the following season New York dealt him to Baltimore. "He was too versatile," says Orioles coach Rick Dempsey. "His talents got overlooked."
They aren't anymore. This spring Mora was finally given a position to call his own. "Defensively, Mel has turned into an above-average third baseman," Dempsey says. "On offense he's incredibly balanced." He doesn't just mean the way Mora leveled his pronounced uppercut. Mora is batting .350 against righthanders, .333 against lefthanders; .360 at home, .333 away; .386 in day games, .322 at night. Crowley credits patience. Mora, he says, waits on the ball as well as anyone.
Patience is a virtue Mora has refined in the last three years. "Good things come to those who wait," he says. For Melvin and Gisel, who was undergoing fertility treatments, the good things kept coming and coming. At Gisel's eight-week maternity checkup the couple was told to expect twins. Three weeks later doctors adjusted that number upward. Gisel had woken up in a puddle of blood, sure she had lost the babies. Melvin drove her to a hospital and paced outside her room. "When I went inside, everyone was laughing," he says.