Gibbons so close, yet far

Ex-Oriole's road to redemption takes him to independent-league series in York, Pa.

June 29, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

YORK, Pa. -- Jay Gibbons is a 50-minute drive from the place where he was once a hero, 50 minutes away from a stadium where his best buddies are still revered. This is the closest he has been to Baltimore since the Orioles released him in March, giving up on their former right fielder after seven seasons.

He acknowledges that it's strange to be so close, and so distant.

"It is tough being here. It's tough seeing all the `O's' on the cars here," said Gibbons, whose Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League played the York Revolution in a three-game series that started Friday.

"I had a great time for seven years. [Baltimore] is starving for a winner, and they have a great bunch of guys. I am just so happy for them," he said. "But it is definitely tough being this close."

After waiting 10 weeks for a call from an affiliated team that never came, Gibbons, 31, decided this month to play in the Atlantic League and jump-start a career that had been stalled by injuries and involvement in baseball's performance-enhancing drug scandal.

The second-year Revolution, managed by former Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles, wanted him. But he needed a fresh start. So he joined the Ducks, a club filled with ex-major leaguers, including former All-Star Carl Everett.

"It's a league of misfortune," said Everett, who had a 14-season career in the majors that includes a World Series ring and dustups with umpires, managers and the media. "A lot of times mistakes are made by whomever, whether it is the club on judgment or the player. If you are one of those players that they made a mistake on you, you are going to hope someone else sees you."

Gibbons has repeatedly apologized for his "mistake," buying and using human growth hormone that he said he took to help recover from injury. He was included in Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report and initially suspended for 15 days.

"All I can say is I am sorry. I'm sorry," he said. "I made a mistake and have paid a price for it.Absolutely."

Based on his reception in York, some have accepted the apology; others haven't.

He received little reaction when first introduced Friday night, but by his fourth at-bat a faint chant of "hGH" had started. Pre-game, however, Gibbons signed autographs for about 15 minutes, and later he said he received nothing but encouragement. "Everybody was very polite. That's what I chose to hear," he said. "I was very happy people supported me and came out, and I don't care much about the ones that don't. Interesting night, to say the least."

While his old Orioles teammates were 50 miles south of Baltimore playing at pristine Nationals Park, Gibbons was 50 miles the other way in a sleeveless Ducks jersey with only "No. 13" on the back - his number from high school.

He's riding a bus and playing for a few thousand dollars a month in 5,000-seat stadiums that feature such events as fans wrestling in sumo suits and a kids' sack race between innings.

"It's a total time warp taking me back to the minor leagues," he said. "It is just so different than anything I have experienced in the last eight years."

On Friday, Gibbons was the Pizza Hut K-Man of the Game, meaning that if he struck out at least once, all the fans would get a free order of breadsticks the next time they visited Pizza Hut. With the crowd chanting "breadsticks," he fanned on three pitches. It was one of three strikeouts he had that night, giving him 11 in his first 44 at-bats. The 1-for-5 performance dropped him to a .250 batting average as he tries to adjust to the world of slow and slower pitches, inconsistent strike zones and small light standards.

"I'm really having trouble," he said. "I am a spoiled big leaguer. ... It's an adjustment."

Ducks manager Dave LaPoint, a former big league pitcher, said Gibbons' timing is off, but he expects improvement. And he said he thinks Gibbons will eventually get a call from affiliated baseball. In fact, he said he thinks Gibbons should already be there.

LaPoint, who was a temporary victim of MLB's free-agent collusion in 1987, said there's no question that Gibbons has been blackballed because of the hGH incident.

"I am sure he went through hell just sitting home wondering why nobody called him, at least for a tryout or something," LaPoint said. "It's not like he is a bad individual to go along with everything else. He's a great guy and a hard worker. And he's had a pretty good career, and he's still young. So why wouldn't you give him a chance?"

Gibbons, who batted a career-worst .230 last year with the Orioles, exhausted every opportunity before contacting the Ducks. He wrote letters to the other 29 big league organizations saying he would play for free in the minors - the Orioles are paying him a total of $11.9 million for the 2008-09 seasons - but no one bit.

"If the Mitchell Report hadn't come out, I believe I would be playing professional baseball," he said. "I don't know if I'd be playing for the Orioles, because I was in agreement with them with what they did. They were moving on. I had a rough year with them, and no hard feelings. I just find it hard to believe a second chance wouldn't be given to me."

This, he said, might be his last hope.

"If I go out there and hit .100 for the rest of the season, and play winter ball and hit .100, I am not going to hang on. Trust me," Gibbons said. "But if I play well, I would hope somebody would take notice, in this country or another - just because it is so much fun. I really am living the dream, I still am."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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