Gibbons is back in swing of things

After 3 wrist operations in past 19 months, Oriole ready to flex his muscle

`I think it's all better now'

Team hopes he's pain-free, counts on healthy dose of power from slugger

February 16, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - There's an old Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Kramer get invited to watch doctors perform open-heart surgery from a balcony viewing area. The two jokesters seem fairly riveted with the procedure until Kramer inexplicably drops a Junior Mint - into the patient's chest.

Cue the laugh track, unless you're Jay Gibbons. That mint might hit a little too close to home.

Gibbons has had not one, not two, but three operations on his right wrist in the past 19 months, and the two he had this past offseason were mostly symptoms of bad luck.

Little wonder the Orioles still drool at the prospect of what Gibbons might accomplish this season if all this misfortune is behind him.

He had 15 home runs over half a season in 2001 and 28 home runs last year despite having two leftover sutures pressing against a nerve in his right wrist.

He showed up yesterday at spring training with a horrific story about that third operation and a big smile on his face because the wrist finally feels right.

How good can Gibbons be over a full season at 100 percent? "I'm as curious as everybody else," he said. "I'm really excited. I just want to be healthy to see what I really can do."

Gibbons first had surgery on the wrist to repair a broken hamate bone and cartilage damage in August 2001. He started out fast last season, hitting seven home runs during the first 17 games, but the pain returned, limiting his production.

On Sept. 30, the morning after last season ended, Gibbons underwent a second operation "to remove a suture in his right wrist," it says in the Orioles' 2002 Post-Season Summary. "The suture did not dissolve following surgery the previous season and had pressed against a nerve in his wrist."

Gibbons said he actually had two leftover sutures removed. Two weeks later, he was home in Lakewood, Calif., when the wound suddenly got infected.

"I was at the movies one night, and within 30 minutes, my wrist [swelled] up," Gibbons said. "I went to the emergency room and spent a couple nights in the hospital. Usually an infection for surgery would happen within 48 hours. This is something they really can't explain. It just blew up."

Gibbons flew back to Baltimore for operation No. 3.

"That set me back about a month [in the weight room]," Gibbons said. "It was frustrating, but I think it's all better now. It's water under the bridge."

By hitting the weights hard during the next few weeks, Gibbons thinks he can bring himself to the point he wanted to be at physically when last season ended.

Unlike the previous offseason, when he purposely shed about 15 pounds of muscle to carry less bulk, he wasn't trying to change much about his conditioning this time.

He said he weighed in yesterday at 192, or 2 pounds over last year's playing weight.

As for goals this season, Gibbons said he would like to become more like the hitter he was in the minors, walking more and striking out less. In 2000, at Double-A in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, he hit .321 with 61 walks, 67 strikeouts and a .404 on-base average.

Last year, he hit .247 with 45 walks, 66 strikeouts and a .311 on-base average.

"What I would like to see him be is a solid hitter in the middle of the lineup and have solid at-bats and be a tough out," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "He can hit all kinds of pitching. Sometimes he tries to do a little too much with tough pitchers instead of using the whole field.

"But he's capable of it, and it's not fair to evaluate him on the last two years because he's had injuries. A wrist injury for a hitter is major."

Gibbons won't turn 26 until March 2, and development-wise, Crowley still sees a player who didn't have a single at-bat in Triple-A.

Besides the wrist pain, Gibbons has had growing pains. When the Orioles struggled as a team last season, Gibbons knows he pressed too much.

"I probably had about 30 different swings last year, whatever worked for that day, and that doesn't help either," Gibbons said.

Crowley didn't notice 30 different swings. He said that was probably Gibbons' way of saying he never felt comfortable last year. The underside of Gibbons' right wrist is purple from all the scars, but for the first time in 19 months, he looks comfortable.

And, perhaps, risk-free.

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