Garcia as good as gold; Orioles: Be it boxing or infield, Jesse Garcia knows how to handle a glove. So he probably won't drop the chance to fill the club's utility role.


Each time it appears that Jesse Garcia's professional life is coming into focus, the lines begin to blur. Each time the path seems straight and uncluttered, he must navigate a few bumpy curves. So far, he has yet to be tripped up.

Compile an impressive record as an amateur boxer, then heed baseball's calling. Field almost as many plaudits for defensive excellence as ground balls, then switch positions.

See yourself as a starter at the major-league level, then prepare for life in a utility role.

The December trade of Jeff Reboulet to Kansas City created a spot for Garcia with the Orioles. It's practically been handed to him. And knowing Garcia, he's not likely to bobble it.

The first step was accepting it.

Garcia, 26, was chosen by Baseball America as the Eastern League's best defensive second baseman for two straight seasons, most recently in 1998. He already had earned a similar honor in the California League.

Then came the chance to play there with the Orioles when Delino DeShields opened last season on the disabled list. But the club already had made plans to move Garcia to shortstop and create room at second for Jerry Hairston at Triple-A Rochester, so the opportunity was fleeting.

Hairston is viewed as an everyday player in the majors, yet it's Garcia who stands the better chance of sticking with the club. Hairston must unseat DeShields at second or most likely return to Rochester. Garcia must continue to gobble up every ball hit to him at second and short, plus show he's dependable enough at third to be trusted with the occasional late-inning assignment or spot start.

"I'm ready for it," said Garcia, who hit .207 with two homers in 17 games with the Orioles last season, and didn't commit an error in 38 chances. "I'm ready to help this team win and get to the playoffs and win the World Series. That's what we're here for.

"I'm excited. I'm just ready to get spring training going."

Garcia, a career .253 hitter in six minor-league seasons, said he hasn't spoken with club officials about his status. He can connect the dots between the Reboulet trade and his immediate future, but won't make assumptions.

"I'm just going to go about my business and do what I was normally going to do," he said. "I know a position's available. There's an opportunity. We'll see what happens. Like I've always said, you can't take anything for granted. You've got to keep working hard and be humble about it."

Thrift likes his tenacity

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, will leave the managing to Mike Hargrove, but he conceded that Garcia has the inside track on Reboulet's old post.

"I believe that's right," he said.

"Jesse's got great tenacity," Thrift added. "I just like the fact he's such a good competitor. He's a fighter. He's hung in there when a lot of other guys would have gone home. I like that tenacity he has, that toughness."

Thrift could have been talking about Garcia's other sporting interest, the one involving punches rather than putouts.

Garcia boxed competitively for 10 years, racking up a 53-2 amateur record and winning several Golden Glove titles. His mother would drive him to baseball practices in Robstown, Texas, then cart him to the gym. Sometimes the routine would be reversed.

He attended Lee Junior College in Texas for one year, long enough to be named to the all-conference and all-region teams. The Orioles selected him in the 26th round of the 1993 draft, when boxing no longer occupied his time or consumed his thoughts.

Garcia missed the 1994 season, which he was scheduled to play in rookie-league Bluefield, because of pneumonia. He won that bout, as well, and began establishing a reputation for soft hands that belied his pugilist background.

His arm was another matter. Former manager Ray Miller had heard from members of the organization that Garcia wouldn't be a suitable shortstop because he couldn't make the throws, but found out differently last spring. Garcia not only was able to make diving stops to both sides, he also could whip the ball to second or first -- occasionally from his knees -- while cutting down both the base runners and his doubters.

In one last parting shot to his critics that landed flush, Garcia was named the All-Star shortstop in the Arizona Fall League while playing for Eddie Murray's Scottsdale Scorpions.

"When I found out about that honor, I was like, 'You know what? I've made a good transition to short,' " Garcia said. "I've really worked hard to play that position well. I feel very comfortable, like a normal shortstop. Like I've been playing it for years."

"He has a fine arm and he's a tremendous fielder," Thrift said. "He can play second base with the best of them and he can play shortstop."

Burned at hot corner?

But what about third, where he started the Orioles' final game last season? Though never flashy, Reboulet was consistent and reliable at every infield position he played. His managers never thought twice about using him in Cal Ripken's place, even when coming into a game cold with little margin for error.

Now, it appears Garcia could be given many of the same responsibilities, minus the years of experience.

"I've taken a lot of ground balls at third. I feel good out there," he said.

"He can play third base," Thrift said without hesitation. "That's no concern of mine."

Neither is an injury to Garcia's left wrist that cost him about two months of the season while at Rochester and contributed to a .204 batting average in August. He strained a ligament, and the pain became so severe that turning a doorknob became much harder than turning a double play. Taping the wrist didn't help with inside pitches or the fear of swinging hard, but the rest that has come since the Arizona season ended has been most beneficial.

"It's a lot better," Garcia said. "We'll just see when the season starts and I'm taking all those swings in spring training, how it responds."

He's already responding well to the idea of being a part-time player. Judged against more steady work in the minors, the former boxer finds it's an easy decision.

"If that's going to be my role to help this team win, then that's my role," he said. "It all comes down to wanting to win."

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