Big swing in popularity

Hot-hitting first half has fans forgetting past transgressions

July 08, 2008|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN REPORTER

If anyone needed further proof that Aubrey Huff was back in the good graces of most Orioles fans, it surfaced during the seventh inning of Saturday night's game against the Texas Rangers. And it didn't require him to get a big hit or drive in a crucial run. The point was made when nothing happened.

Huff came to the plate with two runners on base and two outs, but his ground ball ended the threat. Returning to the dugout, he was showered with silence. No booing, no jeering, no obscene chants.

"Time heals everything," first baseman Kevin Millar said.

So do 17 home runs and 54 RBIs, which Huff brings into tonight's game against the Toronto Blue Jays that begins the Orioles' final road trip before the All-Star break.

A noted slow starter, Huff has erased some of that reputation, along with the controversy that he stirred up in the fall during an appearance on a Tampa, Fla.-based shock jock's satellite radio show. Two more hits Sunday, including his 26th double, raised his average to .281. He also had a sacrifice fly. He was named the American League Player of the Week after hitting .345 with three home runs and nine RBIs last week.

Who saw this coming?

Before the season, Huff was a career .236 hitter in March and April, when he hit 13 of his 156 home runs, and .255 in May. He didn't pick up a bat or ball until spring training after undergoing sports hernia surgery over the winter. And he showed up at Fort Lauderdale Stadium still grieving the loss of close friend Joe Kennedy, the former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher who died unexpectedly in November - leading Huff to change his uniform number to 17 as a tribute.

He was set up to fail, except he didn't. Though bypassed for selection to the All-Star team, he ranks among the AL leaders in doubles, homers, RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

"I think I've found an offseason routine that works for me, finally," he said. "I've tried everything from hitting extra, working out harder, doing all kinds of stuff. And it turns out what I needed was less. Less is more for me."

When spring training began, hitting coach Terry Crowley consulted daily with the training staff to gauge what activities Huff could handle. Crowley worked with Huff on the side, having him hit 20 balls off a tee for three straight days, then 25 soft tosses. He would take ground balls one morning, then go back to the tee. Finally, he was cleared to take live batting practice and appear in exhibition games, long after his teammates had grown tired of the routine.

"Make no mistake, he's talented," Crowley said. "And anytime you have a talent like that, as long as you don't injure him or have a setback, good things are going to happen."

Huff, signed to a three-year contract in January 2007, went on his usual tear after the break last season, batting .346 with nine homers, 28 RBIs and a .592 slugging percentage beginning Aug. 1.

"I really feel like at the midway point of last year, Aubrey Huff found his swing again and maintained it," Crowley said. "Once he was healthy, he just picked it up - the same approach, the same stance, the same everything - and it carried right through."

It also moved him past the regrettable comments he made about the city of Baltimore on Bubba the Love Sponge's show, which Huff insisted were uttered in jest as part of an act. His lewd remarks about his favorite pre-game activities only further incited fans and team officials, who levied a hefty fine.

"That seems like a decade ago now. It really doesn't enter my mind anymore," he said. "I still hear some Bubba Army fans in the stands, but that's about it."

Huff made a pre-emptive phone call to his mother, Fonda, after learning he caused an uproar in Baltimore.

"He said, 'You may as well know this because you're going to hear about it,' " she said. "It got all blown out of proportion. He knew better. When he went to the University of Miami, that's the first thing they taught him. Things will get turned around if you're not careful. He just forgot. He let his guard down. He really likes Baltimore."

Manager Dave Trembley said he wasn't concerned about Huff because "success takes care of a lot of the negative things, especially in this city, where it's so work-oriented."

"People are very blue-collar," he said, "and they're willing to give people a second chance."

Crowley said: "He's a funny guy. He likes to laugh at himself as much as he likes to laugh at other things. I know he didn't mean to hurt anyone."

Said Millar: "There's nothing vicious in his body. It's just a bad body.

"When people were talking about how we needed to get a bigger bat, Aubrey Huff can be that bat," Millar added. "He hit 30 home runs in the big leagues [34 in 2003]. You have that guy here for $7 million a year. I'm glad to see him doing what he's capable of doing."

And it all started by doing less.

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