He was all by himself on the infield dirt in the middle of the afternoon yesterday, taking grounders hit by Cal Ripken Sr. One, two, 20, 50. Leo Gomez does this every day now. Takes a long round of grounders, the sun beating down, sweat forming, rolling off his forehead. "A kid working at his profession," manager John Oates was saying, "which is nice to see."
Then Gomez dropped his glove on the grass, picked up a bat and spent 20 minutes with the hitting coach, Tom McCraw, an inch here, an inch there, an imperfect science. Few doubt that Gomez can hit major-league pitching -- he always hits, in every league -- but he isn't one to take things for granted. It just isn't his style.
Besides, this is the time to take extra everything. This is Gomez's big chance. He knows it. Craig Worthington knows it. Everyone knows it. Gomez, 24, will become the Orioles' third baseman if he continues to demonstrate he belongs. It is his position to win now. There is no competition this time. There is just Gomez and his big chance.
That isn't to say Worthington won't make it back into the lineup when he returns from rehab in Rochester. The Orioles aren't ready to give up on him -- they would've traded him by now if they were. But the point is they want more than they've gotten from third, and this is Gomez's chance to demonstrate he is the one who can provide it.
"If I play like I know I can, I'll be playing every day," Gomez said yesterday. "It's an opportunity. Sure it is. Don't get me wrong. I'm sorry Worthington got hurt. I don't want anything like that. But the club called me up, and here I am. If I play well, I stay. That's what I want. I want to be in the big leagues 15 or 20 years."
The Orioles don't have a preference at third, of course; after three dozen post-Brooks third basemen, all they are asking for, with a long sigh, is someone who can make the position his home. It is such matters, not wins and losses, that may soon be the sole current running through this lost season. Regardless, this much is true: Gomez will succeed somewhere if there is any justice in the world.
Here is a kid who had nothing handed to him throughout the minors, an undrafted free agent from Puerto Rico who was nobody's prize prospect. "Every step along the way, I had to earn my position," he said. "Never was it automatically assumed I was moving up. I wasn't one of those. If I moved up, it was because I'd done my job."
And here is a kid who works. Period. "When we sent him down earlier this season, we told him he had to be a better fielder to make it in the majors," Oates said, "and he came up with this plan to take extra fielding every day. He did it there, and now here with [Ripken] Sr. And he looks good at third. He's worked hard on his fielding. Real hard. And it shows. He looks comfortable."
Gomez has waited years to hear a major-league manager compliment him so. The Orioles signed him out of high school in 1985, but Gomez had designs on the majors long before that. His older brother, Marco, had spent four years as an outfielder in the Brewers system, reaching Triple A, but never making it to Milwaukee. "It put the bug in me," Gomez said. "I wanted it."
He didn't play baseball in high school, oddly enough. He played volleyball and basketball -- "I liked making assists" -- and learned his baseball playing in a weekend legion league. An Orioles scout spotted him pounding the ball one day, and soon after high school Gomez was off to Bluefield, W.Va.
He started hitting as soon as he arrived, and his numbers pushed him up and up through the system. He hit .352 at Bluefield in a rookie league, .326 with 19 homers in Class A, .281 with 18 homers at Class AA, then .277 with 26 homers and 97 RBI at Rochester last year. The kid can hit. "A God-given gift," he said. "I am thankful every day for it."
Now he is here, and his big chance sits in front of him like a fat fastball. He started the year with the Orioles, but was sent down after hitting .222 without an RBI in 45 at-bats. "I didn't hang my head," he said. "It was the right thing for a young player like me, going back down. I wasn't doing the job."
Said Oates: "What he did was recognize that he needed work, went back down to Rochester and got his stroke straightened out. Now he's back, and he looks good. He's handling himself well up here. That's good. And as long as he's playing well, well, if the wagon ain't broke, you don't fix it."
Back home in Puerto Rico, his parents, four sisters and brother are no less than ecstatic. His father, who ran a subcontracting company for years before retiring, spent countless hours teaching his sons baseball fundamentals. "They watch ESPN," Gomez said. "When I hit that homer against Toronto [Sunday night on ESPN], they saw it. I talked to them after. Everyone is so thrilled."
It is a happy story, yes, but of course, it doesn't end there. Gomez has been in the lineup for just six games. His big chance is just beginning. He has hits in all six games, reaching base four times last night. Not that anyone is shocked. That's what they say about Leo Gomez, you know. He always could hit.