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Conine Playing out of position


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Mr. Marlin has morphed into Mr. Invisible.

 

Jeff Conine spends more time in the dugout than on the field, frittering away the innings and wondering when -- if ever this season -- he'll play regularly.

 

He said he's healthy.

 

No question he's eager and willing.

 

But one of the most beloved players to wear a Marlins' uniform remains ensconced inside the dark recesses of the dugout, out of sight and out of mind.

 

"It's frustrating," Conine said. "I just have to be patient and be ready for when they need me."

 

Never did he imagine his career would come to this, that a two-position player wouldn't have a position to play. First base no is longer an option because that's the position now manned by Carlos Delgado. Left field is taken because Miguel Cabrera is, well, Miguel Cabrera. And right field belongs to Juan Encarnacion, who is off to a flying start.

 

"Pretty much everybody is at a position I play," he said.

 

Which leaves Conine, a regular for all of his major-league career until now, as the odd man out.

 

The experience has been discomforting, and it's one he terms "a work in progress."

 

'If you asked me if I would have 13 at-bats by April 22, I would have said `You're crazy, I'll have more than that,' " he said.

 

Conine is now up to 18 at-bats, five fewer than pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who shows up to start once every five days.

 

He feels out of place and out of sync.

 

On Sunday, when Conine made his first start in left so that Cabrera could rest, he failed to take advantage of the rare opportunity. He went 0 for 4, stranding seven base runners.

 

The sitting has caused rust.

 

`AN ADJUSTMENT'

 

"I don't have sharp timing like you normally do," Conine said, "but I had opportunities and pitches to hit, and I didn't do it. It's an adjustment. It's an adjustment I'm trying to adapt to."

 

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly Conine fell by the wayside, but the explanations number several.

 

There was last July's trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers when Encarnacion returned to the fold, but even then Conine merely shifted to first.

 

Then came the blockbuster free agent signing of Delgado, and there went first base. Conine was one of several Marlins brought in as window dressing for the signing ceremony.

 

But the biggest blow for Conine likely came during the Thanksgiving weekend when, during a friendly game of paddleball, he slammed into a wall and injured his right shoulder, the shoulder that had been operated on only a couple of months before.

 

"If I didn't get the injury, I don't know if this is even a topic," Conine said of his reserve role.

 

What was billed as a position battle between Conine and Encarnacion during spring training never really developed. Conine didn't see action until the final two weeks of spring while Encarnacion, who also was on the rebound from offseason shoulder surgery, was receiving most of the playing time and making the most of it.

 

Encarnacion won the outfield job out of spring, and he has done nothing to relinquish it. He belted a grand slam on opening day, another a few days later and his 19 RBI ranks him among the National League leaders.

 

"He's playing well, and there's no reason to take him out of the lineup right now, because he's swinging the bat so well," Conine said.

 

That doesn't make the situation any easier for Conine, who is 38 and in the final year of his contract with the Marlins.

 

He said he hasn't given any thought to requesting a trade.

 

"I want to play, but whoever they might trade me to may not be able to guarantee that," he said. 'It would really depend on where, because there's only a handful of teams that are going to have a shot [at the playoffs] like this team has. Unfortunately, I think [another team would] look at the situation and say, `Well, we'll get him for a pinch-hitter.' I'm not ready for that yet."

 

Conine wants to play for a winner. A member of both the 1997 and 2003 World Series champion Marlins, he covets another chance to win another title.

 

But the lack of playing time has Conine concerned about his future.

 

`JUST A BENCH GUY?'

 

"I don't think I've played myself into this role, so I don't know how it would affect my future role, whether it's here or somewhere else next year," he said.

 

'Just because I didn't get a chance to start this year and someone else did, does [another team] visualize me as `He's just a bench guy now?' " Physically, I feel perfectly capable of playing every day."

 

Manager Jack McKeon said he has "admired" the way that Conine has taken to his new role and abstained from complaint.

 

The Marlins open a three-game series tonight at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies. Conine always has hit well at Coors, where he owns a .423 average.

 

But chances are, he'll find himself inside the dugout, jacketed against the mountain cold.

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