2-month swing propels Bigbie

Orioles: Sizzling close to last season ends the promising outfielder's wait for a starting spot.

March 23, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - He wondered. Sure, he wondered.

Sitting on the disabled list last season, Orioles left fielder Larry Bigbie wondered if he had just let his best chance slip by.

All the gaudy numbers he had posted in baseball since taking off his shoulder pads and setting aside his football dreams. All the chances the Orioles had given him at the big league level. All those miserable 0-for-3s.

And every day, a reminder of what could have been. Brian Roberts, whose career had pretty much paralleled Bigbie's, was blossoming. Luis Matos, too. All Bigbie could do was sit and wait for his umpteenth opportunity while his strained right shoulder healed.

"I know I can hit here [in the big leagues]," Bigbie said, recalling his thoughts from early last summer. "But when's it going to happen for me?"

The answer came soon, two months that changed everything.

On July 27, Bigbie returned to the Orioles' lineup and hit a home run against the Toronto Blue Jays. He played in 60 more games, and, over the final 46, he hit .345, which was the third-highest batting average in the American League during that span, behind the Kansas City Royals' Joe Randa (.367) and the Boston Red Sox's Manny Ramirez (.362).

That stretch confirmed everything the Orioles had believed since they made Bigbie, 26, a first-round draft pick out of Ball State in the 1999 amateur draft. It also confirmed Bigbie's own beliefs.

When he was growing up in rural Hobart, Ind., football had always come first. He was the star quarterback as a junior and senior, and there was a scholarship offer to play football at Purdue.

Nestled inside the northwest Indiana border, about a 35-minute drive from Chicago, Hobart is in the middle of basketball country. But at Hobart High, football was king.

"Every Friday night, everyone was at the football games," Bigbie said. "It was like a ghost town."

Bigbie was ready to sign his football letter of intent when he started hearing a steady buzz that he had a chance of getting drafted to play pro baseball.

That final season at Hobart High, Bigbie didn't persuade the pro scouts to draft him, but he did persuade Rich Maloney to make him a part of his first recruiting class at Ball State.

Maloney, who now coaches at Michigan, had played in the Atlanta Braves' organization, and he instilled a professional approach into his college players. They practiced with wooden bats instead of aluminum.

Bigbie was the Mid-American Conference's Freshman of the Year. As a junior, he hit .419 with 17 home runs, and this time the Orioles snagged him with the 21st overall pick in the draft (29 spots ahead of Roberts).

Sometimes, Bigbie would watch football and miss it.

"I was just curious to see what would have happened," he said. "Obviously, if I would have gone to Purdue, I would have been competing with [current San Diego Charger] Drew Brees. ... So, I'm happy where I'm at."

Rising prospect

The road from first-round draft pick to starting left fielder for the Orioles wasn't always smooth. Little more than two years after the draft, the Orioles rushed Bigbie from Double-A Bowie to the big leagues.

In 47 games, he hit .229.

Then, in 2002, Bigbie battled injuries and spent most of the year in Triple-A. He returned to the Orioles in September, but in 16 games, he hit .176.

This is why he was so despondent last May.

The Orioles had tired of watching Gary Matthews struggle, and they had pegged Bigbie as his everyday replacement in center field. But the night before Matthews was placed on waivers, Bigbie strained his right shoulder diving for a ball in left field.

San Diego claimed Matthews, and with Bigbie headed for the disabled list, the Orioles promoted Matos to play center field.

In mid-July, while Bigbie was working his shoulder back through a rehabilitation assignment, his batting average with the Orioles stood at .239. Matos was hitting .350, and Roberts, who had replaced the injured Jerry Hairston at second base, was a steady .285.

Bigbie called it the low point of his career.

"They call a few of those other guys up, and you kind of look at yourself and you wonder if that was your chance," he said. "I wasn't hitting all that great when I was up, and now I'm hurt, I can't do anything about it.

"And the team's playing well, and you're wondering where you're going to fit into the picture when you're healthy."

Bigbie remembers a weight being lifted from his shoulders when he hit that home run against Toronto in his first game back. From there, the weeks' worth of anguish quickly disappeared.

Big, new outlook

This spring, it's clear Bigbie has become a huge part of the Orioles' plans. He is still two years away from salary arbitration and five years from free agency, which is why the team has shunned the Los Angeles Dodgers' attempts to trade for him.

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