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Finally Healthy, Drew Puts His Potential Into Action

September 19, 2004|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — It was a perennial question: What could J.D. Drew do if he actually made it through a season without getting hurt?

Finally, we have the answer.

Though there's still two weeks left in the regular season, Drew's had enough time to show off his enormous talents -- and silence those skeptics who questioned his willingness to play with pain.

He's a .300 hitter who can hit a mammoth home run, beat out a bunt or steal a base. He's the rare outfielder who's been blessed with speed, instincts and a strong throwing arm.

He's the complete package.

"I love to play the game of baseball," said Drew, winding up his first season with the Atlanta Braves. "I love to play it healthy, when I can come to the field and enjoy running and running the bases, playing quality defense. That's the stuff that gets me excited and keeps me going every day."

Drew didn't have much to keep him going through his first five full seasons (using the term loosely). He never made it through a year without a detour to the disabled list. Some of the injuries seemed rather innocuous -- a sprained ankle here, a strained muscle there -- leading some to question whether this guy had enough heart to play with the inevitable aches and pains that pop up during a 162-game schedule.

Even so, the Braves decided to take a chance on Drew during the offseason. They traded three pitchers to the St. Louis Cardinals for the oft-injured outfielder and utility man Eli Marrero.

General Manager John Schuerholz knew it was a gamble, but he didn't have much choice. An offseason salary purge cost the team Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla. The Braves desperately needed someone who could drive in runs.

Drew, who had never played more than 135 games in a season, was the best-case scenario for a budget-minded team. The Braves looked back hopefully at 2001, when Drew batted .323 with 27 homers, 73 RBIs and 13 stolen bases. Everyone else saw a guy who didn't have more than 18 homers or 57 RBIs any other year.

As it turned out, the trade couldn't have worked out any better for both teams.

Jason Marquis and Ray King have been key members of the Cardinals' staff, helping them build a commanding lead in the National League Central and the best record in baseball. And the 28-year-old Drew has been the perfect medicine for the Braves, leading the team in homers and RBIs much of the season.

"We knew the power he had, the running ability," Manager Bobby Cox said. "It was just a matter of being healthy."

As the injuries piled up, Drew's enthusiasm for the game began to wane.

"When you play injured all the time, it's kind of hard to get motivated mentally," he said. "It's a grind to start with treatment and end with treatment. That's not a fun way to approach it."

This season started in disturbing fashion. Drew missed three games with a stiff neck, another week with a sore hamstring. His new teammates were skeptical, wondering aloud if the maladies were that serious. No one was more blunt than Gold Glove outfielder Andruw Jones, who rarely misses a game.

"You just suck it up," Jones said. "Some people just can't do that. Some people know how to play hurt, some people don't."

Looking back, Drew insists that he didn't take the backhanded criticism personally.

"They probably had questions about my past," he said. "I didn't want to hurt the team with my performance. In the scheme of things, it was a short amount of time. But it happened early in the season, so I can understand where they were coming from."

A skeptic might say that Drew's breakout season was neatly timed to the final year of his contract. He'll undoubtedly command a huge salary in his next deal, whether it's in Atlanta or somewhere else.

In the meantime, it's clear that Drew is thoroughly enjoying his season in Atlanta. "You can tell he's just fitting in well here," brother Tim Drew said. "I know he's happy."

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