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Remembering Ronnie Belliard

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Earlier this week, veteran second baseman Ronnie Belliard retired after 13 seasons in the major leagues.  In 1484 major league games, he rapped out 1377 hits and drove in 601 runs while hitting .273.  He made one All-Star appearance (he struck out) and led all American League second basemen in games played, both feats performed in 2004.  At the end of his career he bounced around the league, playing for four teams in his final six major league seasons and retiring as a member of a fifth team's AAA club.  Before he became an itinerant infielder, however, he was a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brewers selected Belliard out of Miami Central High School with their eighth-round pick in the 1994 draft.  He was joined in the Brewers draft class by Antone Williamson, Steve Woodard, and Matt Erickson (57th round).  At the time Ronnie was drafted, his cousin, Rafael, was thirteen seasons into a career as a light-hitting middle infielder for the Pirates and Braves.

After finishing 1994 as a member of the Rookie-level Arizona Brewers, Ronnie moved up to Class A Beloit in 1995 and made himself a prospect by hitting .297 with 13 home runs as a 20-year-old second baseman.  In 1996, Belliard was bumped up to AA El Paso, where he hit just three home runs.  He did, however, steal 26 bases and walked more than he struck out, while impressing in the field.  Asked in a phone interview about his game, he said, "Some people say my best (attribute) is my offense.  Some say it's my defense.  I'd have to say it's both right now."  The Brewers rewarded him by adding him to the 40-man roster after the season.

An ill-timed hamstring injury cost him a shot at filling in on an injury-ravaged major league club in April 1997.  When he recovered, he struggled playing for AAA Tucson, hitting just .217 and committing 10 errors by late June.  He rebounded to finish the year with a .282 batting average with good plate discipline.  After the Brewers moved their AAA affiliate to Louisville in 1998, Belliard broke out by hitting .321/.408/.503 with 14 home runs and 33 stolen bases.  He committed just 14 errors in 130 games.  The performance was good enough to warrant a late-season callup and 8 games with the Brewers.  Baseball America took notice, too, naming him the #49 prospect in the game before 1999.

Despite being blocked by Fernando Vina and Mark Loretta at the beginning of the 1999 season, another rash of injuries opened the door for Belliard in early May.  Having hit just .241 for Louisville, expectations may have been low for the rookie, but he excelled, hitting .295 with 8 homers and 29 doubles.  In 2000, his rate stats fell, but he appeared in 152 games and led the league in putouts as a second baseman.  In 2001, his batting average stayed steady at an uninspiring .264 but his power improved, as he hit 11 home runs and knocked out 30 doubles in just 101 games before a right ankle sprain effectively ended his season in August.  He remains the only Brewers second baseman to hit 30 doubles in back-to-back seasons.  In fact, he's the only Brewers second baseman to do that twice in his career.

His erratic ways at bat and in the field led the team to sign veteran second sacker Eric Young as a free agent before the 2002 campaign.  That resulted in a three-way competition at third base between Belliard, Mark Loretta, and Tyler Houston.  Belliard responded by hitting an abysmal .211/.257/.287 for a team that lost 106 games, and the Brewers were ready to say goodbye.

Belliard signed a one-year contract with the Rockies for 2003 and bounced back with a solid season.  That in turn earned him a deal with the Cleveland Indians, where he made the All-Star team after hitting over .300 for the first half of the season.  Like the Indians as a whole, he faded down the stretch, but that season kicked off a six-year streak of batting averages over .272 with at least ten home runs as he transitioned from starting second baseman to utility player while bouncing around the majors.  In 2009, his last big-league hurrah came in the form of a .351 average in 24 games down the stretch for the Dodgers, who went on to the NLCS.  After hitting just .216 in 82 games for the 2010 Dodgers, he was released.  He failed to make the Yankees roster this spring and ultimately signed with Phillies to play for AAA Lehigh Valley.  He was hitting .251 with 3 home runs and had committed 13 errors in 49 games at third base before calling it quits.

One constant question mark for Belliard was conditioning.  While originally listed at 5'8" and an adolescent 180 pounds, his stocky profile didn't fit the middle infielder stereotype.  Near the end of his career, the Dodgers had a inserted a clause in his contract that guaranteed him money only if he weighed less than 210 pounds.  With consistent play, conditioning issues and questionable personal style can be overlooked by fans, but Belliard's erratic play dismissed that possibility.  Ultimately, he was never able to live up to his good rookie season in Milwaukee, and he wore out his welcome in multiple cities after departing the Brewers.  In another universe, Belliard might have put it all together, kept in shape, and made more than one All-Star appearance, but in this one, he calls it quits with nearly 1500 games played, eight figures in the bank, and a destiny to have his playing career remembered only for its appearance in the all-time register of baseball players.