Gruber's quest more than a wild swing


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For those who might have forgotten, spring training is not about contract talks, umpire disputes or any of the other side issues from which the Orioles can't escape.

No, spring training is about players like Kelly Gruber, the unique passions this game elicits, the comebacks that seem possible only on quiet fields in the Florida sun.

Will Gruber make the Orioles? The question is almost irrelevant. Gruber said it himself yesterday -- just taking grounders and swinging in the batting cage, he already considers his return to baseball "a great success."

Gruber, 34, hasn't played since 1993, when he appeared in only 18 games with the California Angels. Two years later, he underwent fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. And now, after another 18 months of inactivity, here he is.

It seems almost ludicrous that a player can miss almost four seasons and then make a contender's roster as if he were just coming off the disabled list. Gruber knows that he faces long odds, that he can never reclaim his prime.

What he wants now is closure.

"It's been a long road, it really has," Gruber said yesterday after his first workout with the Orioles. "It took a lot out of me. I'm again full of energy, ready to roll. But it's been really tough.

"Just being out in a 'uni' again, it feels good. I just need to continue on, figure out where to go from here. Until I put something to bed, I can't start something else. And it's been hard to put this to bed.

"I'm here to find out if there's anything left. If I can [play], great, it's another dream come true. If I can't, at least it gives me the opportunity to figure out what lies ahead."

He has nothing to lose. Neither do the Orioles. Gruber is a former All-Star who hit 31 homers for Toronto in 1990. Former teammate Mike Flanagan calls him perhaps "the most multi-talented infielder I've ever seen."

He was drafted as a shortstop, but the Blue Jays played him mostly at third base and yesterday the Orioles worked him out at second. "He's got nice hands, a quiet glove," coach Sam Perlozzo said. As for the rest of it, who knows?

"This is a skill sport -- it's not something you just forget," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said. "His stroke still looks very good to me. He still looks very athletic to me. He was kind of a Pete Rose type -- he played all out, gave everything he had."

And now?

The Orioles don't need Gruber to play every day -- they envision him as their sole utility infielder, opening the season at second while Roberto Alomar serves his five-game suspension, adding right-handed pop off the bench.

As recently as six months ago, Gruber would have said "impossible." He underwent surgery in August 1995, spent three months in a body cast, another month in a soft collar. It appeared doubtful he would resume his career.

"My main goal was to look at life after baseball," he said. "I wanted to go out and play with my children, teach them the game, maybe even dive after balls they hit, play some golf. If I could achieve that, then I could go further."

He is a humble, appealing sort now, far different than the cocky upstart who sometimes grated on his teammates in Toronto. In )) fact, he still fears that his spine might betray him, that other disk abnormalities will resurface.

This is a player who once was so agile, he could do an Ozzie Smith-style back flip. But after the surgery, Gruber can recall standing under the basket in his driveway, feeling almost helpless in his soft collar.

"I looked up and it was so far up there, it looked like a million miles," he said. "I decided to jump. I thought I would just touch the net. I think I probably jumped an inch and a half off the ground."

His injury occurred in April 1992, when he took a swing against Kansas City and "felt something pop." The diagnosis was neck spasms. Gruber returned after a week, then hurt his shoulder in June trying to compensate for the injury.

He tried to block out the pain, playing 120 games that season, and 12 more in the postseason. But he wasn't the same hitter, batting .229 in the regular season, .091 in the American League playoffs, .105 in the World Series.

"It was one of those things where nothing showed up," said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick, who was then with the Blue Jays. "Our guys weren't sure what it was. He knew there was something there. But he went ahead and played."

The Blue Jays won the World Series, then sent Gruber to the Angels for infielder Luis Sojo and cash considerations. Of course, he needed more than a trade. "I went up to the press conference, put on their uniform and couldn't lift my shoulder," Gruber said.

Surgery fixed that problem.

But his neck symptoms remained.

"I'd dive for balls and lay on the ground paralyzed for two or three seconds not knowing if I had the ball," Gruber said. "It was pretty bad. I blacked out. I couldn't even take the pressure of putting a helmet on my head."

So he retired, finally undergoing neck surgery in '95. Six months ago, he turned a corner in his rehabilitation. And now here he is, at the invitation of Gillick and his former minor-league teammate, Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone.

"I'm going to be a little bit smarter this time," Gruber said. "I'm not going to wear blinders to all the pain. I'm going to pay attention to that spinal area.

"But I'm going to go out and play the only way I feel I was created to play. If I can't do that, that's a reality, I'll accept that. I'm not in the game to hang on, to chase records, to go to the Hall of Fame. I'm here to help the ballclub win."

And so, Gruber begins his improbable comeback. This is why we return to baseball, day after day, season after season. For those who might have forgotten, this is what spring training is all about.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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