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Amaral Needs No Spotlight Versatile Veteran Gives Mariners Speed, Good Batting, Fine Defense

He has the highest batting average and the most stolen bases, plays almost anywhere and gets less attention than just about anyone in the Mariners clubhouse.

Rich Amaral wouldn’t have it any other way.

The veteran infielder/outfielder/pinch hitter/pinch runner is totally comfortable with the reality that the bright spotlight rarely points his way.

“I don’t know why, but (media) attention doesn’t interest me,” he said. “As a player, all I care about is winning.”

The Mariners have playoff potential this season because of their vaunted offense and improved starting pitching. But don’t underestimate Amaral’s value.

“He doesn’t say a whole lot and doesn’t get a lot of credit for what he does,” right fielder Jay Buhner said, “but he never complains. Richie is pretty much the unsung hero on this club.”

When the M’s began a brief three-game homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers at the Kingdome Friday night, Amaral had a .377 batting average, five stolen bases, no errors … and a seat on the bench.

He sits when right-handers pitch.

“Against right-handers, he is more valuable to me on the bench than in the field,” manager Lou Piniella said. “The way we play here, we use our bench every night.

“I can use him to hit, I can use him to run, I can use him to bunt and I also can use him at first base, second base and the outfield.”

Amaral gets around and is never bored.

“I know my role here and I’m very comfortable with it,” he said. “Wherever and whenever Lou needs me, I’m ready.”

At an age (35) when most players are on the downside of a professional sports career, Amaral seems to be getting better. He played in a career season-high 118 games last year and batted .292 with one home run, 29 RBIs and a team-leading 25 stolen bases in 31 attempts.

Mariners coaches selected him as the team’s Unsung Hero, and management presented him with a two-year contract. That marked the first time in his 14-year career that he received a multi-year deal.

“There are so many things he can do for you,” Buhner said. “He can steal you a base, put the ball in play and give you defense. All good teams need to have a guy like that.”

Piniella appreciates not only Amaral’s versatility, but the attitude that comes with the package.

“First of all, he’s productive,” Piniella said. “Secondly, he is a professional. He knows how to play the game. He can do the finesse things and has good speed, something this team doesn’t have a lot of. He’s the most versatile player I’ve managed.”

Amaral, an infielder since he broke in in 1983, has become a steady defensive player wherever Piniella puts him. The UCLA product played 10 games at first base last season, 15 at second, one at third and all three outfield positions. He didn’t make an error at any position.

And he hasn’t made an error this season, either.

“It’s tough enough playing one position well at this level,” shortstop Alex Rodriguez said. “I can’t imagine playing the way Rich does wherever he plays. He’s the kind of player you need to win championships.”

Amaral is making the most of Piniella’s platoon system in left field until highly touted Jose Cruz Jr. is promoted from Triple-A Tacoma. Amaral starts in left field against virtually all left-handers. Lee Tinsley has been facing right-handers.

“I know that whenever Cruz is ready he’ll be here,” Amaral said, “but I have been through a lot worse.”

With most starting rotations filled with right-handers, it keeps Amaral on the bench more than he would like. But he likes to think he can handle any situation.

“I know my role here, but I wish we faced more lefthanders,” he said. “We might go six or seven games facing nothing but right-handers.”

When that happens, Amaral gets to the park at midafternoon and takes early batting practice, a routine he says has helped keep him sharp.

“It’s pretty boring,” he said, “but I’m a guy who comes to the ballpark every day thinking about what I have to do that day. I don’t think about yesterday or the day before that. This is a ‘now’ game.”

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