Garcia pays off big as a long shot

April 04, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Five years ago, a group of wide-eyed minor-leaguers stood near the door of the Orioles' spring-training clubhouse in Sarasota, Fla., waiting to catch a glimpse of Cal Ripken.

Jesse Garcia was 20 then, starting his second professional season. Summoning all his courage, he asked Ripken to sign two baseballs that day, one for himself, one for his father.

"I was so nervous, I dropped one of the balls right in front of him," Garcia said.

For all anyone knew at the time, meeting Ripken might have turned out to be the highlight of a career that looked less than promising. But here's Garcia, on the eve of the 1999 season opener, about to be teammates with his idol.

No one expected this -- not the Orioles, not Garcia, not even the scout who signed him, Ray Crone.

Even if Garcia rarely plays behind Jeff Reboulet at second base and remains with the club only until Delino DeShields returns, he will have overcome considerable odds.

One year ago, he was a career .243 hitter in the minors entering his second season at Double-A. Now, he has a chance to be an immediate fan favorite, a scrappy, home-grown talent cracking a roster of high-priced, aging stars.

"It's hard to believe. I had faith in him, but you just never know what's going to happen," said Crone, who signed Garcia out of Lee (Texas) Junior College and is now a major-league scout with the San Diego Padres.

"I'm surprised he got a chance, really. All throughout his career, he has been hearing about all the other people they liked. That can sometimes be discouraging to a player."

But not to Garcia, an engaging, irrepressible sort who signed with the Orioles for $8,000 as a 26th-round draft pick in 1993. Of the four minor-leaguers who stood gaping at Ripken five years ago, he is the only one left in the organization.

Shortstop David Lamb, the team's second-round pick in '93, also was in the clubhouse that day. But the Orioles protected Garcia over Lamb on their 40-man roster last winter, and Lamb went to Tampa Bay in the Rule 5 draft.

Second baseman Jerry Hairston, an 11th-round pick in '97, also had moved ahead of Garcia, reaching the majors last September. But Syd Thrift, the club's former farm director, said Garcia has since passed the converted shortstop.

"He's ahead of Hairston as far as being able to play in the big leagues right now," said Thrift, now a special assistant to general manager Frank Wren. "Hairston is learning a new position defensively. He's not ready to play."

Garcia is ready, not only at second, but also at shortstop, where he has impressed the Orioles this spring. Those two ninth-inning stops he made at second against Cuba? Thrift said he saw him make five similar plays at Bowie last season.

The question is whether Garcia can hit. Bowie manager Joe Ferguson told him last season that he needed to start using the whole field if he wanted to reach the majors. Garcia listened, then batted .283 in 86 games at Bowie, and .294 in 44 games at Rochester.

New farm director Tom Trebelhorn believes Garcia will be a better hitter in the majors than he was in the minors. He said the Orioles' initial plan this season was to alternate Garcia and Hairston between short and second at Triple-A -- a plan that still figures to take effect once DeShields returns.

"Garcia is by far the best second baseman, and equal to Hairston, sometimes better, at short," Trebelhorn said. "Hairston, overall, is a better bat. We wanted them both ready to play in the big leagues, and both ready to play both positions."

But all that changed when DeShields broke a bone in his left hand on March 4. Garcia was eating alone at a Chili's in Fort Lauderdale when he saw DeShields' picture appear on ESPN. The sound on the TV was down, so he didn't learn of DeShields' injury until that night.

"I thought I might have a long-shot chance," he said.

He knows no other kind. Thrift described Garcia, a former Golden Gloves champion in Texas, as a "true fighter." Garcia knew that some in the organization considered him a non-prospect. It only made him work harder.

"At certain times, I felt I wasn't going to make it to the big leagues. It wasn't going to happen," Garcia said. "But I always stuck it out. I have a big heart. I always believed hard work pays off."

Crone saw that in Garcia from the start.

"I went down to sign him, and you could tell in his eyes that he wanted to play," Crone said. "Most of the guys, you have to beg them to take some money. They always want more. But when you've got a kid that's eager, that's 50 percent of it."

The Orioles used to develop players like Garcia all the time, players who were tough and savvy, players who knew how to win. Baseball players, manager Ray Miller calls them, as if the species were almost extinct.

Five years ago, Garcia was a nervous, excited kid, dropping a baseball he asked Cal Ripken to autograph. He's still worried about dropping baseballs in front of his idol, but for entirely different reasons now.

"The first game of the spring, there was a ball hit to him. We turned the double play. I was like, `Wow!' " Garcia said. "The first thing that went through my mind was, `Please catch it.' If I drop it, there's no telling how Cal is going to react."

He caught it, and then he caught on.

Here's to the long shot. Here's to Jesse Garcia.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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