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BILL PLASCHKE

Jay Gibbons gives Dodgers an unlikely bright side

Left fielder Jay Gibbons can't wait to continue his feel-good resurgence with the Dodgers after his career seemed finished.

January 21, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Dodgers left fielder Jay Gibbons is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dodgers left fielder Jay Gibbons is congratulated by teammates in the dugout… (Matt Slocum / Associated…)

Can't get excited about the Dodgers season? Call Jay Gibbons.

"This is still so surreal," he says Wednesday. "I'm out of baseball and then — boom — I'm playing for my dream team? Are you kidding me?"

Can't get fired up over a patchwork Dodgers lineup embarking on another mediocre Dodgers season? Call Jay Gibbons.

"My first national anthem at Dodger Stadium last year, I put the glasses on so nobody could see me tearing up," he says. "I couldn't believe I was there. I still can't."

Can't understand why anybody should care about a Dodgers left fielder who is not Manny Ramirez? Listen to Jay Gibbons.

He's being projected as the possible starter just months after his career was finished. He is being slotted for the middle of the Dodgers batting order three years after baseball kicked him out.

He's the rare steroid guy who not only admitted it and apologized for it, but has returned to the game after spending three years paying for it. He's the rare Dodger who is not only grew up in Los Angeles, but whose father is a former season-ticket holder who attended each of his home games late last season.

Bouncing around my cell phone Wednesday like a center field flag on a blustery afternoon, Jay Gibbons is that rare baseball player who can make the peacefulness of winter long for the burn of spring.

"I cannot wait for camp," he says. "I know how quickly this thing can end. I know they can release me in a month. I know I have to come out strong."

The fact that the 33-year-old even has a locker in Arizona — with a contract that only guarantees him baseball pocket change of about $400,000 — is as stunning as a Glendale snowstorm.

Since being cited in baseball's steroid-related Mitchell Report three years ago, as well as being named in news accounts that alleged he received shipments of performance-enhancing drugs, the former Baltimore Orioles slugger has been a baseball pariah.

This is a guy who hit at least 23 homers and at least 69 RBIs three times in seven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, a guy who drove in 100 runs in the only season in which he had at least 500 at-bats.

Yet this was a guy who was released before opening day of 2008 and did not reappear on a big league field until last August.

While great players like Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte continued playing after admitting use of performance-enhancing drugs, Gibbons wasn't judged good enough to overcome the steroid stain.

"Nobody wanted me, teams even got mad at my agent for bringing up my name," he says. "I was gone, and I couldn't get back."

Where did he go? Where do you want to start?

How about an attic apartment in Long Island, living above an elderly woman while he played outfield for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League?

"It was sit-down-to-take-a-shower weird," he remembers. "But it was the only place that wanted me."

How about a virtually vacant stadium in Newark, playing for an independent Newark Bears team that few knew existed?

"One night I counted everyone in the stands, and they added up to 17 people," he says. "That included my wife and our twin boys."

Through it all, he understood the snub, accepted the punishment, and ultimately embraced the opportunity to spread the word.

"I tell young players, look what happened to me, a guy who worked hard all his life, and then got injured and tried the cheat the system, and now will pay for it the rest of his life," he says, noting that the performance-enhancing drug use occurred when he was fighting to recover from numerous wrist surgeries. "I tell them, I've done things the right way, and the wrong way, and believe me, the wrong way doesn't pay."

You want desperate? How about a guy who mailed a personal letter to all 30 teams offering to play for a salary that he would donate to the team charity?

"I got three responses," he says. "None of them positive."

You want really desperate? While playing a round of golf last summer ago with his Moorpark High coach Scott Fullerton, Gibbons accepted an offer to be a volunteer assistant.

"I was like, well, OK, everyone turned their backs on me, I was ready to move on," he says.

Except, ever the coach, Fullerton prodded Gibbons to think about it again, to make sure he wouldn't regret not giving it one more shot. So last winter Gibbons was on the phone for the last time, and one of those calls landed him in Venezuela, on his own dime, for a tryout with a winter league team there.

As if that weren't crazy enough, in the stands during that tryout was Dodgers scout Ron Rizzi. Adding to the serendipity, the manager of that Venezuelan team was Carlos Subero, who manages the Dodgers' double-A team in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Yes, Gibbons had a good tryout. Absolutely, he had a great winter. Of course, he ended up in the Dodgers' minor league camp last spring, leading to his recall from triple-A Albuquerque last August, which resulted to five homers and 17 RBIs in 75 at-bats, persuading the Dodgers to give him a shot at sharing the left field spot with newly acquired Marcus Thames.

Steroids are bad, but this story is good, and I'm cheering for it to continue, this most improbable of journeys, Jaywalking through Mannywood.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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