Comfort is a nice swing for Gibbons

With new contract, regular position, he's happy Oriole

March 27, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The troubles have always come for Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons when he has been taken out of his comfort zone, when injuries have sapped him of his power and managerial decisions have wreaked havoc with his confidence.

Last season, Gibbons was asked to be several things on the baseball field that he said he is most definitely not. He is not a first baseman, despite playing 19 games there last season to accommodate the arrival of Sammy Sosa. He is not a bottom-of-the-order hitter, despite the 70 times his name was penciled in the seventh, eighth or ninth slots in 2005.

"You start to doubt yourself a little bit," Gibbons said. "I wasn't playing every day, and you start thinking, `Wow, what is going on here?' Your manager doesn't have the confidence in you. I don't blame [former manager Lee] Mazzilli. It was understandable. But Sam [Perlozzo] knew what I did in the past, what I was capable of. And he gave me a shot."

Shortly after he was named Orioles interim manager, replacing Mazzilli in early August, Perlozzo called in Gibbons for a meeting. He told Gibbons that he'd be the everyday right fielder and he was being moved up into a run-producing spot in the batting order. "I just think he needed a confidence boost," Perlozzo said.

Gibbons responded, batting .349 with eight home runs and 23 RBIs over his final 29 games of the season. The strong finish -- he hit .277 with 26 home runs and 79 RBIs last year -- sent him into a busy offseason in which he would find professional and personal security like never before.

In late January, Gibbons, whom the Orioles snared from the Toronto Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft in December 2000, signed a four-year, $21.1 million deal with the organization, which decided that the 29-year-old would be a part of the future core of the club. Gibbons and his agent had approached the Orioles a couple of times before, but they were always told that if "he had a good year, he'd be taken care of."

"I was a year away from free agency, and if they didn't want to sign me, I was playing for 30 teams," Gibbons said. "Growing up, I always thought of playing by my friends and family in Southern California. A lot of people dream of doing that, but after five years in Baltimore, this is where I wanted to be.

"We have a new atmosphere, and I see, really for the first time, us turning the corner and making the right moves. I am not just talking about player personnel. I am talking about upper management. It starts with the manager, and he feeds that in us."

His future now clear after a year of uncertainty about his role with the organization, Gibbons and his wife, Laura, bought a house in Baltimore and have decided to make the city their year-round home. They got married about three weeks before Gibbons had to report to Fort Lauderdale for spring training.

"It was good timing on my part," Gibbons joked.

Aside from being away from his bride, Gibbons is perfectly content with how this spring has unfolded. A right hamstring strain proved to be only a minor setback, and Gibbons, who is batting .258 with one homer and eight RBIs this spring, feels removed from the injuries that dogged him two seasons ago.

He also knows that no matter what happens, he'll go into the season as the right fielder and likely cleanup hitter, protecting Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez in an ideal spot in the order.

"I think it is a good pressure," Gibbons said. "They've given you their vote of confidence. I am not worried about that pressure. I am welcoming it. I am happy to be hitting in the middle of the order and being one of the guys that they want to drive in runs. I think anybody in this clubhouse would take that pressure."

Late last week, Gibbons, leaning back on a chair in the home clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, said he had never felt so comfortable in an Orioles uniform.

"It's a different feeling, more relaxed, knowing that not just this year but for the years to come, I am going to be here," Gibbons said. "I feel very settled. There is a quiet confidence going into this season. I am looking forward to a fun year."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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