- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

BALTIMORE Someday, when his baseball career has long since ended and his grandchildren want to hear about his first home run as a major league ballplayer, Jay Gibbons is going to have quite a story to tell.

He still won't have the ball, though.

Gibbons' first month in the big leagues was memorable enough before he took Tampa Bay's Ryan Rupe deep last Wednesday night at Camden Yards. He already had picked up his first hit, his first double, his first RBI, scored his first game-winning run, had his first four-hit game and witnessed a no-hitter.

His controversial home run and subsequent efforts to retrieve the ball, however, will be most everyone's lasting memory.

"It will always be a topic of conversation," Gibbons said. "It'll make for a good story someday."

The home run, a bullet off Rupe down the right-field line, was initially ruled a foul ball by umpire Al Clark, much to the chagrin of Gibbons, Baltimore first base coach Eddie Murray and manager Mike Hargrove, who all began screaming bloody murder.

After a lengthy consultation with home plate umpire Rick Reed, Clark reversed his call. Gibbons had to be reminded to retouch first base and then continued around the bases.

Meanwhile, the fan who caught the home run decided he would give the ball back to Gibbons only if the Orioles offered up numerous items in return, such as one of Cal Ripken's bats and several signed baseballs. No can do, the team said, leaving Gibbons without one of a ballplayer's most cherished mementos.

"I was giving it to my dad, anyways," Gibbons said. "That's why it bugs me a little bit because I think my dad deserves it."

Which says more about this humble 24-year-old with the carrot-top hair and Popeye-sized forearms than anything he has done on the field. Signed by the Orioles in last winter's Rule 5 draft, Gibbons, who never played above Class AA before, is living out every kid's dream, which is appropriate because he still is one in many ways.

When he collected his first base hit off Cleveland ace Bartolo Colon on April 7, Gibbons called his father, Jim, back home in Lakewood, Calif. He did the same thing two weeks ago after going 4-for-5 at Detroit. And, of course, last week following the dramatic home run.

"He's my biggest fan," Jay Gibbons says of his father. "I love him, until he tries to coach me after a bad game or something. Then I have to tell him, 'Dad, calm down.' But he's the one who took me out to batting practice every weekend and supported me all the way through."

Don't let the boyish charms fool you, though. Gibbons is an intimidating presence at the plate, 6 feet and 200 pounds of pure muscle who may be one of the Orioles' best left-handed power threats since the team moved into Camden Yards. A few teammates inevitably pause to watch him take batting practice each afternoon, perhaps wondering if he has enough in him to reach the warehouse beyond right field, a feat never accomplished in a game.

"He's got a powerful swing," Baltimore hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "When he hits the ball on the button, it goes a long way."

Gibbons is certainly getting plenty of chances to show what he can do. Usually, players picked up in the Rule 5 draft in which one team claims an unprotected player from another and then must keep him on its major league roster all season are given only an occasional at-bat every week or two. But as the Orioles enter a three-game series with the Devil Rays tonight, Gibbons has appeared in 23 of Baltimore's 32 games, sixth-most on the team.

"I thought there'd be a shot at some playing time," he said. "I didn't think it would be this much this soon, but I'll take it."

The results have been somewhat mixed. Along with all of the "firsts" he's accomplished in the last five weeks, Gibbons has gone through his share of brief slumps. After his four-hit game at Detroit on April, he was batting .289; he's dropped 50 points since and struck out three times against Roger Clemens on Friday.

"He's a swinger," said Crowley, who has been working with Gibbons on refining his swing. "Now he has to learn to harness all that energy. I call it 'controlled aggression.' He'll get there. We as a staff can help him along, but there's no substitute for experience."

And if history is any indication, Gibbons' batting average should rise as the temperature at Camden Yards does. In four minor league stops and two stints playing winter ball, he never batted below .305.

"Last year [at Class AA Tennessee], I think I was hitting about .250 a month into the season," said Gibbons, who finished the year batting .321. "I've been here before, where I hadn't made the adjustment yet. I'm not worried about it."

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