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8 Upper

The Kids Are Alright

By Tom Scocca | Posted 7/11/2001

Fourteen weeks ago, while I was waiting for the 2001 Orioles to get started, I heard a new and distinctive sound at the ballpark. I was standing by the home dugout during batting practice on Opening Day, talking to reporters suntanned by weeks at spring training, when there was a sudden, percussive pak!, like a muffled quarter-stick of dynamite. I turned to see a ball rocketing toward right field, fast and far. In the cage, wearing No. 25, was a medium-sized guy with XXXL-sized arms--immensely and elaborately muscled arms, the triceps bulging like an extra set of biceps worn backward. So this was Jay Gibbons.

At the time, Gibbons was an intriguing footnote on the roster, a 24-year-old who'd never been past Double-A, claimed from Toronto in the Rule 5 draft. His minor-league numbers screamed with potential, but as a DH-1B-LF, he looked like an end-of-the-bench player, stuck behind veterans David Segui, Jeff Conine, Delino DeShields, and Brady Anderson--to say nothing of the more advanced youngsters like Chris Richard and Mike Kinkade. Under Rule 5, the O's had to keep him in the majors all year, but they didn't have to do anything with him.

I'd like to say that I was carefully studying Gibbons' swing Opening Day. I wanted to. But batting practice is boring, and my attention kept wandering. So what happened instead was that, over and over, I would hear that jolting pak!--qualitatively different from the regular crack! of bat on ball--and would see the ball flying at terrifying speed, and I'd think, Lordy, what just happened to that ball? And then I'd realize, again: Jay Gibbons happened to that ball.

Here at the All-Star break, as we tally up the first slightly more-than-half of the season, it's easy to get depressed about the Orioles. Thanks to another round of beatings by the Yankees, the Birds have just slipped from their hard-earned spot in third place down to fourth, seven games under .500 and 121/2 games behind the first-place New Yorkers. Their team batting average is an anemic .254, 12th in the league. The bullpen has blown 10 out of 30 saves. Cal Ripken Jr. was their lone representative on the All-Star team.

But then there's this: The person who's hit the most home runs as an Oriole this year is Jay Gibbons. Though he's only batting .235, he's slugging .470, second only to Richard's .474. He has more homers than Anderson and DeShields combined. And he will have the chance to pad that margin; the O's dumped DeShields last month, and manager Mike Hargrove has declared that Anderson is not an everyday player.

This is the way a youth movement is supposed to happen. It's too soon to know if it's going to succeed, but the Orioles are finally knuckling down for the hard, occasionally demoralizing work of finding the answer. Kinkade is getting his cuts. Richard is getting his cuts. The only Oriole with a secure position and 300 at-bats is not some aging vet; it's Jerry Hairston Jr.

Unavoidably, things look bleak some nights. With Conine nursing a sore back this past weekend, the O's were forced to put Tony Batista, batting a feeble .233 since joining the team two weeks ago, in the cleanup slot. But it doesn't really matter whether Batista should be batting cleanup right now; the question is whether Batista will be batting cleanup in the future. After hitting 41 homers for Toronto last season, he was in a funk at the plate this year. So the Blue Jays tried to slip him through waivers to send him to Triple-A, and the Orioles grabbed him, in the hope that with enough time he can straighten out his swing. It may be a gamble, but as with Gibbons, it's a gamble that a rebuilding team can afford to take.

Even the team's bad luck has its upside. When Mike Bordick separated his shoulder in mid-June, the O's were forced to call up Brian Roberts from Rochester to fill in at short. Roberts enters the break with a 14-game hitting streak. With super-prospect Ed Rogers, Bordick's designated heir, down in Single-A, Roberts looks a lot like Steve Finley did back in 1989, crowding his way onto the roster by being simply, inarguably ready to succeed in the majors.

And if Roberts is complicating the Orioles' plans at shortstop, Josh Towers has completely rewritten the starting rotation. Does anyone even remember that the O's ace is supposed to be Pat Hentgen? Since Hentgen went on the disabled list in May, Towers has been flabbergasting: 5-2 in eight starts, allowing a scant 11 earned runs and issuing only seven walks. And those totals are inflated by two patches of bad luck, a mid-inning hand injury against the White Sox and a two-run homer against the Yankees coming out of a rain delay. Towers is eerily dominant, throwing low-speed pitches with almost unhittable precision. His control, like Gibbons' terrific power, is heralded by his minor-league stats: 1.2 walks per nine innings going into this year. Now he has the chance to use it in the big leagues--and so, one night in five, the Orioles are almost certain of getting a well-pitched game. If the rest of the future looks like anything this, it might be worth the awful wait.

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