Gibbons raises bar for O's muscle men

March 15, 2001|By John Eisenberg

JUPITER, Fla. - It isn't spring training without the sun shining on a phenom, a young player who has come out of nowhere to stir the imagination. The Orioles have a classic this year.

"The first time he walked through the clubhouse, I said, `Man, what a beast,' " Jeff Conine said yesterday.

Brady Anderson had the same reaction when he spotted Jay Gibbons, the Rule 5 draftee who has become one of the talking points of camp.

"He's got some Popeye arms, for sure," Anderson said. "The guy is jacked."

Gibbons, 24, has the kind of minor-league power-hitting numbers that give birth to mythology, but it's his build that has his Orioles teammates buzzing. He has muscles stacked on muscles in his arms, which are too thick for a T-shirt, stretching the seams and sleeves to the bursting point.

Those aren't triceps, those are fully inflated flotation devices.

"You see him in the weight room," Conine said, "and all you can say is, `There's a guy who has thrown around some serious iron.' "

Gibbons pleaded guilty before the Orioles' 3-2 win over the Expos yesterday.

"I've been hitting the weight room pretty hard for a few years," he said. "Really getting into it."

Incredibly, he was a 5-foot-11, 165-pound freshman at Cal State-Los Angeles just four years ago.

"I knew I was going to have to get bigger and add some power if I was going to become a [pro] prospect," he said.

He cut red meat out of his diet and undertook a lifting regimen aimed at developing his biceps, triceps and legs.

"It becomes a way of life," he said. "You have to make sure you're lifting for baseball and not for bodybuilding. You have to stay flexible to play baseball, not get bulky."

Bulk isn't a problem; you wouldn't know Gibbons was a lifter if you saw him in his uniform, with its loose-fitting sleeves. At a compact 200 pounds and a hair under 6 feet, he doesn't stand out.

Out of uniform, though, he is an easy winner of the Orioles' "Most Likely to Bend a Steel Pipe with his Bare Hands" award. And having stats to match that hyperbole convinced the Orioles to draft him out of the Toronto Blue Jays' organization last winter.

"We just don't have anyone with numbers like that," Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday.

A left-handed first baseman, Gibbons won a triple crown for Medicine Hat in the rookie-level Pioneer League in 1998, then hit .308 with 25 homers and 108 RBIs in Single-A in 1999. Last year, he led the Double-A Southern League in slugging percentage and extra-base hits and finished second in hitting with a .321 average.

"Quick bat, awesome power," Thrift said.

The Orioles have to return him to the Blue Jays if they don't keep him on the major-league roster all season, making his chances of sticking that much longer. But he has pounded the ball all spring, hitting .440 with seven RBIs in 25 at-bats. A tough decision looms with Chris Richard and Mike Kinkade also in the mix as fill-in first basemen/designated hitters.

"I sat down and tried to figure out how I could make the club after they drafted me, but that was just a waste of energy," Gibbons said. "I have no control over it, so there's no use worrying about it."

Either way, it is a positive that he is spending the spring in a major-league camp for the first time, an unforeseeable turn as recently as last winter, when he was playing in Venezuela.

"When I heard [Toronto] had left me off their [40-man] roster, I didn't know where I might end up this year," he said. "Now I have a shot at being in the big leagues. It's fun. My dad came down [from California] and spent a few days here. He's really excited."

Gibbons hit a long home run off former Oriole Heathcliff Slocumb in his first at-bat this spring, and although he has slowed a bit lately, he is still ranked among the American League's hitting leaders.

"Ever since Little League, I've been a guy who could hit," he said. "What I do [at the plate] hasn't failed me yet. I've always hit, and in my mind, even getting here, I don't think that's going to change. No matter who is pitching, unless it's Greg Maddux, usually you're going to get one pitch to hit. It's hard when you're playing against guys you grew up watching, but I really don't even pay attention to who is pitching. I just try to keep telling myself I belong."

Whether he will in the end is the question.

"It's very easy to get carried away with what a young player does in spring training," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday. "A Rule 5 guy who starts out hitting really well is susceptible to slumps. Spring training can be a killer that way. You have to keep swinging the bat well [to make the team]."

If that sounds ominous for Gibbons, Hargrove went on to suggest - for the first time this spring - that the club was considering keeping younger players over veterans at some fringe positions.

If Gibbons continues to hit, he could make the decisions difficult.

And even if he goes back to the Blue Jays, he will leave a mark.

"I've got Chris Richard going to the gym with me [to lift] now," he said. "We got Kinkade in there yesterday. I'm recruiting whoever I can."

With his arms doing the twisting, who would even think about turning him down?

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