Rare Opportunity To Play Finally Arrives For Ducey -- Fill-In May Take Buhner's Right-Field Spot

After 14 seasons as a professional, 32-year-old Rob Ducey, who has played just about everywhere, finally might play every day.

Ducey could figure prominently in the Seattle Mariners' plans this summer if right fielder Jay Buhner continues to be troubled by his left knee. Buhner is holding off surgery on the knee - injured while making a sliding catch April 6 - that could sideline him for more than two months.

Buhner was to test the leg today and through the weekend with batting practice and, if he feels better, might attempt to play during next week's road trip. But weakness, persistent pain or aggravating the injury finally could force him into surgery.

That would put Ducey in Buhner's spot for an extended period. Ducey has played 330 games for four major-league teams and never more than 30 straight games in his big-league career. He's a career fill-in. And he's not even fully recovered from left-knee surgery himself.

"If anyone waits until they feel 100 percent - no pain, no mental issues - then it would take a long time for some guys to come back," said Ducey, who returned to the Mariner roster Monday, 14 days removed from torn medial meniscus surgery. "There is no question when you're in the big leagues, you want to play every day."

Since Buhner has been out, five players other than Ducey have been tried in right field: Robert Perez (nine games), Ryan Radmanovich (seven), Charles Gipson (two), Rich Amaral (two) and Jeff Huson (one). They were a combined 6 for 51 (.118) with seven strikeouts, two home runs and six runs batted in.

Ducey, who started there the past two games and should start tonight when Minnesota comes to town for three games, has five hits in nine at-bats with four RBI. He hit a three-run homer Wednesday and drove in a career-high four runs to help beat Kansas City.

"Ducey's back. That helps tremendously when you consider there are so many right-hand pitchers in this league," batting coach Jesse Barfield said. "It could be worse if he was a right-hand hitter. It eases the pain just a little bit."

Barfield said rookies Gipson and Radmanovich were "not ready for the big leagues."

"He has flaws," Barfield said of Radmanovich. "If he didn't have flaws he'd probably still be in Minnesota (his former team). Right now at this level with this ballclub, you can't learn. He's where he needs to be at this point (Class AAA Tacoma), so he can clean up some flaws and get some at-bats. He wasn't going to get that many at-bats with Ducey back."

General Manager Woody Woodward said the best situation for right field, if Buhner has surgery, "would be finding somebody who can play every day, leaving Ducey and Amaral to do what they do off the bench. That would be the best scenario. But the problem is we're at our budget. If there is a trade, it has to be a dollar-for-dollar trade."

There also isn't much help on the farm. The best prospects might be Shane Monahan, who had a solid spring but is hitting ..255 with one home run for Tacoma, or long shot Tarrik Brock, hitting ..291 with four home runs for Class AA Orlando.

"He showed some spurts in spring training," Barfield said of Monahan. "He came on at the end, but I don't know how he would fare in this situation. We need to win some ballgames. You hate to bring a kid in here in this situation. He has never played in the big leagues and you tell him he has to do this and this. That's tough.

"But let's not sell Ducey short. He had a tremendous spring training (.328). He not only hit well but hit well to the opposite field. Once he has more BP, he'll get his swing back. He's going to mend up nicely."

Manager Lou Piniella said Ducey's swing "is better than I've ever seen him." Ducey's additional advantage is that he has been through a season under Piniella, who gives greater latitude to veterans than young players.

"He was tough on me last year. Now I know," said Ducey, who was voted the team's Unsung Hero last season. "(But) it doesn't change. Spring training I felt I had to fight for a job on this team. Maybe that's the edge that keeps me going, maybe that's the edge I need to perform at this level. I've never felt comfortable, ever. I've always had to fight. Every day I go out there I feel I have to do something, little, big, something positive, to go back out there the next day."

His history supports this anxiety. He was supposed to be part of the next-generation outfield in Toronto after Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell. It never happened. He played 189 games with the Blue Jays, but that was over six seasons.

He was traded to California on July 30, 1992. The Angels, using him sparingly, released him at season's end, and he signed with Texas in 1993. The Rangers did not call him up until Aug. 29, and he had his longest playing stint as a big-leaguer, playing 27 games and starting 24.

The Rangers sent him to the minors in 1994, then released him. He then played two years for Nippon in Japan, hitting .248 with 51 home runs in two seasons.

"I definitely would like the opportunity to play every day. In my mind, I believe I can do that," Ducey said. "It's a matter of allowing me the opportunity to do that, because there is going to be failure."