The game is for survivors: like Pete Orr

Pete Orr (Richmond Hill, Ont.), who is at triple-A Colorado Springs, is the third oldest position player in the minors. The former back bone of the Team Canada infield hopes to get back to the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Pete Orr (Richmond Hill, Ont.), who is at triple-A Colorado Springs, is the third oldest position player in the minors. The former back bone of the Team Canada infield hopes to get back to the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers. 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Col. _ With his 36th birthday approaching, Pete Orrknows his playing days are winding down. So not surprisingly, Orr, cognizant of his baseball future, has been viewing the action on the field differently.

“More and more every year, I find myself watching the game thinking as a manager or a coach,” Orr said. “Then I’ll have to snap out of it. I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m still here as a player.’ ”

Orr, who is from Richmond Hill, Ont., is a second baseman by trade. But last year while playing for manager Rick Sweet at Triple-A Nashville, Orr played every position except catcher and pitcher while hitting .306 in 113 games. The Brewers moved their Triple-A affiliate to Colorado Springs this year, where Orr is again playing for Sweet.

“You look at Pete, he’s 35, but he’s still got a 28-year-old body,” Sweet said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys at 35 and 36, they start getting soft. They’re out of shape. They aren’t able to do the things they could do at 28. Pete still does the things at 35 he did at 28. That’s rare.

“He still loves to play, and he still can play. That’s the beauty of it.”  

Orr, who was born June 8, 1979, was the third oldest active position player on a Triple-A roster at the start of this season. Only Reno third baseman Cody Ransom (Feb. 17, 1976) and Toledo first baseman-third baseman Mike Hessman (March 5, 1978) are older.

This is Orr’s 16th professional season and the 14th that will include time in the minors. He last played in the major leagues in 2013 _ 15 games with the Philadelphia Phillies starting in late August. This season In 26 games, Orr is hitting .280 with six doubles, a triple, a homer, 15 RBIs and a .354 on-base percentage.

“I conduct myself like I’m in the big leagues, even though you’re not,” Orr said. “If you go about your business every day like you’re in the big leagues, that’s a good way to prepare yourself and be ready for the time when it does come.”

Orr spent five seasons in the minors after signing as a non-drafted free agent with the Atlanta Braves in 1999. It was a good time to be coming up with the Braves, who were then dominant under manager Bobby Cox and whose farm system was very productive.

“I was five years in the minor leagues before I got up,” Orr said. “I definitely wasn’t a guy who was on the radar. Everyone asks me what were the (Braves’) rules. There really weren’t any rules. You did the right thing. It was a respect thing. You conducted yourself as a professional.”

Orr won a spot on the Atlanta bench to open the 2005 season and spent all that year _ when the Braves won their 14th consecutive and last National League East title _ and the next with the Braves. But the balance of the four years, 145 days of service time Orr has in the majors is the result of small slices over numerous seasons. In baseball parlance, Orr is what is known as an up-down guy, a player called to the majors to fill a short-term need and then sent back to Triple-A, perhaps several times during a season. A player who never gets a firm toehold in the majors leagues but is a useful bench player and certainly has the right makeup.

“Utility players and bench players are very replaceable,” Orr said. “So if you have a bad attitude or you’re not a good person, there’s no reason someone should keep you around. I don’t look at it that way, but I think that’s the truth.”

Indeed, in 2007 with Atlanta, 2008 and 2009 with the Washington Nationals and 2011, 2012 and 2013 with the Phillies, Orr was a bench player in the major leagues and put in time at Triple-A. He would dearly love another chance, likely a final one, to play in the big leagues, but if Orr spends his second successive season at Triple-A, so be it.

“When I was younger, there were old guys just hanging around to hang around,” Orr said. “I didn’t think that was right. I think you should have a passion to get back to the big leagues. Even though there’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, you still have to have that passion, because as an older player, everything you do rubs off on younger players.”

That mind set is a reason the Brewers quickly re-signed Orr to a 2015 minor league contract in early November with an invitation to their big league spring training.

“Pete Orr plays the game the way you want every player to play the game,” Sweet said. “He’s just a guy that you love to have on the club. He’s a winner. But the biggest thing he does is he plays the game the right way all the time.

“He doesn’t have to play for you to know what type of player he is. Guys on the other clubs, the love him because he plays so hard. He plays with energy. He plays with enthusiasm. That stands out. Even on the other side for a four-game series, it stands out.”

Orr has a .257 average in 443 games in the majors, about half the number of games (854) he had played entering this season at the Triple-A level. Sweet said when Orr is done playing, he will have his choice of being a manager or hitting coach in the minor leagues.

“We’ve actually talked about it a little bit, only because it’s coming,” Sweet said. “It’s not in the forefront of his mind.”

Not when Orr can still come to the ballpark, work to hone his swing in the indoor batting cage in mid-afternoon and perhaps play in a game a few hours later. Never mind in the Pacific Coast League that might mean a workday that began with a wake-up call well before dawn to travel and play that night.

“It’s one thing to be 20 or 21 or 22 and get up at a 4 am wake-up call to connect on two flights and play a game that night,” said Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau, who played with Orr on Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, 2009 and 2013. “And it’s another thing to be in the big leagues and traveling the way we do, which is as good as it gets. To know what that’s like and to have spent time doing that and to be able to go back down there and remain humble and just do what you’re doing because you realize you’re lucky to do it, no matter what level you’re at _ I have a lot of respect for those guys.”

Colorado Springs is the 12th city where Orr has played, the ninth in the minor leagues. He gives the Brewers infield depth at Triple-A in the form of an experienced, left-handed hitter. The versatile Orr has played 128 games at second base, 57 at third base, nine at shortstop, eight in left field and one in right field in his major league career.

But Orr is not on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster, making it more difficult for him to get back to the big leagues. Filling a need, should it arise, with someone already on their 40-man roster means the Brewers could more easily bypass Orr.

“He’s a guy who’s persevered, and he’s a guy that you hope is going to get another chance,” Morneau said. “Triple-A is the level where guys get bitter and think they should be in the big leagues, and it can be tough. And that stuff can be contagious.

“And when you’re around a guy that’s almost 36 and grinding it out and still chasing that dream, it can help you as a young guy seeing what it means to be a professional, what it means to care about the game and play for the love of the game.”