- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Jay Gibbons spent last winter wondering whether he had any chance to make the Baltimore Orioles' roster.

He spent this winter bashing baseballs at the B&O Warehouse during a commercial shoot at Camden Yards.

From an obscure offseason pickup to a marquee player being used in team promotions, Gibbons' career has literally and figuratively taken off.

"Yeah, it's a little bit different now," the second-year slugger said. "I'm looking to win a starting job this year. Last year I was just looking to make the team."

Barring some mishap in spring training, Gibbons' spot on the Orioles' Opening Day roster is assured. Considering the team's overall lack of power, a guy who hit 15 home runs in only 225 at-bats is a valuable commodity.

"I'll be surprised if he's not on the team," manager Mike Hargrove said. "If he's not, it's because someone else did a real good job."

It was Gibbons' prodigious bat that won him a spot on Baltimore's roster last spring after he had been selected away from the Toronto Blue Jays in December's Rule 5 draft. He cost the Orioles only $25,000 but with the stipulation that he had to remain with the major league club the entire season.

That was no problem. After a slow start, Gibbons was a semi-regular in the starting lineup by midsummer, splitting time among left field, first base and designated hitter. And after clubbing 13 homers and driving in 23 runs over a 38-game stretch in July and August, the burly left-hander actually led the team in home runs.

His season came to an end Aug.4, when he broke the hammate bone in his right hand fouling off a pitch in Toronto. Four days later, Gibbons underwent surgery and did not return, though he still wound up tied with Chris Richard for the team lead in home runs.

Gibbons, who turns 25 tomorrow, went to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball, but lingering pain in his hand forced him to leave within weeks and head to Arizona for an eight-week rehab program.

"You go out there and you expect to perform, and I couldn't because my wrist wasn't strong enough," he said. "But eight weeks of rehab really turned it around for the better.

"[The injury] is really a non-issue. It's funny; I thought I would feel something by now, but I've been swinging a lot and I feel fine."

Gibbons also shed 10 pounds over the winter, giving him even more flexibility at the plate and in the field.

"His arms still look like my legs," Hargrove said, "but he looks a lot less restricted. He looks good. I asked him if he lost weight or if his neck got longer."

Gibbons should be a mainstay in Hargrove's starting lineup as part of the corner outfield/first base/DH rotation along with Jeff Conine, David Segui and Marty Cordova. He was the DH last night in the Orioles' exhibition opener against the Montreal Expos.

"Really, wherever they want to play me, I don't even care," he said. "If I see my name in the lineup every day, that's going to make me happy."

The Orioles must be expecting more big things from Gibbons or they wouldn't have chosen him to star in the commercial. Standing in the batters' box at Camden Yards, Gibbons starts taking aim at the warehouse, which has never been reached by a hitter during a regular season game in the stadium's 10-year history.

Inside the massive building, baseballs are shattering windows left and right, leaving a telephone operator to remark, "Must be Gibbons again."

"It wasn't my idea, but it's all in good fun," he said. "I've been getting plenty of razzing about it from some of the veterans."

Notes Chris Singleton hit a three-run homer and pitchers Jason Johnson and Sidney Ponson each tossed two shutout innings in the Orioles' 3-0 victory over the Expos last night. Singleton, acquired from the Chicago White Sox this winter for prospect Willie Harris, tagged a 1-1 pitch from Montreal's Scott Strickland over the right-field fence in the bottom of the third inning.

Johnson and Ponson, projected to be Baltimore's No. 2 and No. 3 starters, both looked sharp in their spring debuts. Johnson allowed one hit, and Ponson allowed two and also picked a runner off first base.

The two teams meet again today in Jupiter. …

The Orioles signed seven players to one-year contracts: outfielders Chris Richard and Luis Matos and pitchers Josh Towers, Willis Roberts, Kris Foster, John Parrish and John Bale. Baltimore now has only five unsigned players on its 40-man roster.

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