Leo Gomez remembers the day he nearly became an Oriole for the first time. It was during the 1990 season, and Gomez was playing for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. Bill Ripken got hurt.
The call went out for Gomez.
"I got hurt the same inning they called," Gomez recalled yesterday. "I told my wife, 'Maybe it's not my time.' "
Gomez also can remember the day last year when, after making the Orioles out of spring training, he got sent back to Rochester. Instead of moping, he looked at it as an opportunity to play every day.
"I don't want to be here and not play," he said. "To just collect a paycheck isn't fun. I want to do something for my team. I want to do something for myself."
Those disappointments seem long in the past. Since being recalled last June after Craig Worthington was injured, Gomez has firmly entrenched himself as the Orioles' third basemen for the present and, he hopes, the future.
At one time considered shaky in the field, Gomez has become a steady, and sometimes spectacular, two-way player. His glove might not yet be lined with gold, but his feet are no longer filled with lead.
"He's worked very hard at third base," said coach Greg Biagini, who managed Gomez at Rochester. "When he came down last year, we'd have him stand halfway up the line, and someone would soft-toss balls to me and I'd hit shots to him."
The extra work in the field continued with Cal Ripken Sr. when Gomez was called up a month after being sent down. It paid off: Gomez made only two errors in 82 games, none in the last 46, and displaced Worthington, a former Sporting News Rookie of the Year who was traded to the San Diego Padres before spring training this year.
The Orioles always were confident that Gomez would become a productive hitter. He hit .326 with 19 home runs and 110 RBI at Hagerstown in 1987, and was named the organization's Player of the Year. He hit .277 with 26 home runs and 97 RBI at Rochester in 1990.
Asked if there's much of a difference in Gomez between this year and last, Orioles manager Johnny Oates said: "None. He's catching the ball well. He's hitting well. He played well last year and he's just picked it up this year. It's not too often that you're going to get a No. 6 or 7 hitter giving you 70, 80 RBI."
Gomez, who led all rookies last year with 16 home runs, is trying to become a more selective hitter. After hitting .233 in 118 games last year, Gomez is hitting .280 with 12 home runs and 51 RBI.
The 25-year-old from Canovanas, Puerto Rico, also has been on something of a tear. He hit four homers in a five-game stretch last week in New York and Boston, giving him seven home runs in 20 games. His eight-game hitting streak ended last night, but he set up the Orioles' four-run seventh with a sacrifice bunt.
"I want to do this every year, not one year," said Gomez, who has struck out 57 times and walked 45 times in 329 at-bats, compared with 82 strikeouts and 40 walks in 391 at-bats last season. "I want to stay here for a long time."
Gomez is far from the guy who made three errors in his first two games as a nervous rookie at the end of the 1990 season. He has made eight errors this year.
And Gomez has learned greatly from Worthington, whose rise to prominence was followed quickly by his fall from grace. Gomez remembers thinking of how, as a minor-leaguer, he wanted to take Worthington's job away.
"Now somebody down there wants to take my job," said Gomez. "I'm having a good year, but next year I can't come back sleeping. I'm going to come back like a rookie."