SARASOTA, FLA. — There might not be a player in the Orioles clubhouse more thankful just to put on a major league uniform than outfielder Craig Gentry. And that's because just a few months ago, he didn't think he'd have another chance to be a big leaguer again.
Not that long ago, Gentry was one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball, a player who brought speed on the bases, patience at the plate and hustle on defense. But the style Gentry played — head-first slides, slamming into outfield walls — sometimes comes at a cost, and the price he has paid is a tremendous one.
That Gentry is in big league camp, that he's fighting for one of the Orioles' final Opening Day roster spots heading into the last days of spring training, that he's even on a baseball field, all seemed very unlikely given his ordeals.
"Honestly, after the past couple years, I didn't know if this opportunity would come again," Gentry said. "I assumed I might be able to be in the minor leagues [this year], something like that, but the opportunity to make a big league team, I didn't know if that would ever pop up again."
At age 33, Gentry landing with the Orioles — he signed a minor league deal one day after the team's first full-squad workout as part of the club's continuing efforts to improve its outfield defense — could be a case of the right place and perfect timing.
"He's shown you he can do it when he's healthy," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He just hasn't been healthy the past two years. I think he's a prime example of the type of thing we have to do better than other clubs. If he's healthy and he's returned to form, he's a weapon."
Over his career, Gentry's body has taken a beating. He has dealt with a litany of injuries: fractures to both hands on separate attempts to bunt, a broken wrist while crashing into an outfield wall, and back, ankle and hamstring injuries. But it was a concussion Gentry suffered while playing with the Oakland Athletics in 2014 that sent his career — and life — into a two-year spiral.
'I really didn't know what was going on'
On Sept. 9, 2014, Gentry dropped a bunt and sped to first, the kind of play he made hundreds of times in his career. But while racing to the bag trying to beat Chicago White Sox second baseman Carlos Sanchez, the two players reached first base at the same time, and Gentry's head collided with Sanchez's right shoulder, flipping Gentry in the air and to the ground.
By Gentry's count, it was the sixth concussion of his playing career, and the physical effects of the ugly collision — headaches, dizziness and confusion — paled in comparison to the more detrimental long-lasting effects of it.
"After this one, I just went into a really bad depression and really didn't know where it came from," Gentry said. "I couldn't sleep. I struggled eating. … I feel like the physical symptoms of all of it were over in about a month or so, but I was dealing with other things outside of that. That took me a really long time to grasp because I really didn't know what was going on."
Other than the sleepless nights and the lack of appetite, Gentry struggled putting thoughts into words, and there was frustration from not understanding being trapped in his own mind. Included in all of those hurdles was a lack of love for baseball. Every day was a struggle.
"Honestly, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to play anymore," Gentry said. "But I got provided the right help that I needed and provided the right opportunity for me. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my faith and the support of my family and friends and doctors."
In part because of that, Gentry's past two seasons have been lost ones. He was limited to 40 big league games, including just 14 with the Los Angeles Angels in 2016 before going on the disabled list for a lumbar strain in his spine and later an undisclosed "personal medical condition" that included dealing with effects of the his most recent concussion. The Angels released him in early August.
"People really don't talk about it a lot, but it is real," Gentry said. "And this stuff does happen, and it's definitely a struggle. … It was a tough time, obviously for me, for my friends, my family, seeing me go through stuff like that and not really understanding what was going on and not knowing why."
Still, Gentry went into the offseason thinking his career might be over. He was far removed from a three-year span with the Texas Rangers from 2011 to 2013, when he was a .288/.365/.380 hitter and averaged 18 steals per season while playing plus defense at all three outfield positions. Over that span, Gentry's 4.2 defensive WAR ranked fifth amoung all major league outfielders.
Unearthing a diamond
This offseason, something changed for Gentry. His treatment, the countless trips to doctors, seemed to be suddenly paying off. The long-lasting support he received from his family and friends seemed to rally him. He gained a renewed desire to play again, and just needed an opportunity.
Gentry had worked with Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh for several offseasons, and Coolbaugh noticed something different with Gentry this past winter, something that sparked the idea that maybe he could help the Orioles.
"Just his bat speed, his body, he looked healthier to me," said Coolbaugh, who has known Gentry since his days in Single-A ball in the Rangers system. "I liked with the way he was talking, he sounded very confident that he could get back and do some things if he was given the opportunity. When I was throwing to him, just the way he was approaching the offseason, I thought it was refreshing and maybe this was the time to grab somebody who was coming off two years of feeling he hadn't done anything, and he wanted to prove himself again."
Gentry also had a close friend in Orioles first baseman Chris Davis. The two were in the same Rangers draft class in 2006. They were roommates while playing for Short-A Spokane, and became fast friends, living together in the offseason for several years while remaining workout partners despite their careers taking them to different organizations.
"He's had a lot of obstacles to overcome the past few years and just a lot of bad luck," Davis said. "I felt like it was definitely time for him to catch a break. … He's always been a tough guy. He's not one of those guys who is overly aggressive. He's not super intense, but he's obviously been through a lot and I've really respected and admired how he's handled everything, and the fact that he's still getting after it. It would have been easy to just say, 'Look, I don't want to deal with this,' to walk away from everything. But that's just not who he is."
Gentry said his recovery had included a lot of trips to various doctors, and has tested his faith. He said he started feeling better around November. There was no expectation from Gentry, Coolbaugh said. He didn't need a guaranteed deal. All he wanted was the opportunity to prove himself.
Coolbaugh played an instrumental role in the Orioles signing Gentry, campaigning for the organization to bring him in on a minor league deal.
"He's got that look back," Showalter remembers Coolbaugh telling him. "I think he's ready."
"That's where some of the best decisions and additions are made," Showalter said, "when you have a background and you know what's been going on the past two years and you have somebody who speaks to them face to face instead of [going by what's] on a computer and looking at numbers. That's where you make real decisions and you do something that people can't quantify, and Gentry's one of those guys."
The Orioles believed that if Gentry was finally healthy he could add speed, defense and on-base capabilities the club needed. And because the Orioles clubhouse included many familiar faces from Gentry's Rangers days — he played with Davis and reliever Darren O'Day, and under Coolbaugh and first base/outfield coach Wayne Kirby — would ease his transition.
"I think that also gives him the freedom of mind that he doesn't have to prove something and add more stress on him," Coolbaugh said. "… And I think at the end of the day, everybody felt comfortable that if he could be the guy that he once was and show that, that we might have something on our hands and get lucky.
"This organization has done a really good job in utilizing their resources to find guys like that, guys who might end up clicking for you that maybe other teams didn't know about."
Capitalizing on another chance
Gentry made an impact immediately, from his first intrasquad game in an Orioles uniform, making a running catch on a foul ball down the first base line while crashing into the stands.
Davis watched from the on-deck circle as Gentry hit his first home run of the spring on March 8, a three-run shot to left-center against the Toronto Blue Jays at Ed Smith Stadium.
"He looked like the Gentry that I know and remember," Davis said. "He looks really good right now ... I was extremely happy, not because of what he brings to the table as far as baseball is concerned, but he's just a good person."
At the plate, Gentry entered Saturday night's game 13-for-42 this spring, hitting .310/.408/.500 with two homers, seven RBIs and three stolen bases while playing exceptional defense all over the outfield.
"He brings a dynamic to our team that we've needed for a few years now and I think this will be good for not only us but for him as well," Davis said. "I'm just excited to see how much impact it has on our team. Because it's not like we don't have guys who can run. We have guys who can run the bases and have some speed. We just don't have that stolen base threat. That's no secret."
Now, Gentry has emerged from a crowded outfield mix to become a favorite to win one of the team's last 25-man roster spots. His career .350 on-base percentage against left-handed pitching slots him as one the team's right-handed-hitting corner outfielders.
Because Gentry is on a minor league deal, they could send him to Triple-A Norfolk to open the season. He doesn't have an opt-out clause in his contract until mid-June, but with spring training winding down, there's not much more he could do to prove he deserves to run down the orange carpet on Opening Day.
"There's a process you go [through sometimes]," Showalter said. "The safe thing is to have him go down to Norfolk and show you that, but there's a window. … Sometimes that stuff with concussions and everything is as much emotional and psychological as it is a physical injury. … We did a lot of homework. The doctors spent a lot of time with him before we brought him in here. We'll see. That's going to be a tough one because the numbers are [still] challenging."
Gentry had never talked about all the obstacles — including the concussions — he faced as a result of the concussions. But he hopes opening up out about them now can help other players who have endured similar setbacks.
"I feel like I've done what I've need to do to get back and not saying it's not still a struggle, but I feel like I'm in a better place with all of that," Gentry said. "I feel like I'm physically and mentally behind me, but yeah, when you go through something like that, especially with the amount of concussions I've had, it can be a struggle and it was a struggle for me. I'm just glad that, especially after all that, I'm ecstatic to be here because I did not know if this opportunity was going to present itself.
"This opportunity has provided itself and I feel like after going through all that, I was brought here for a reason and I'm excited for the opportunity and the second chance. I honestly thought I was done with baseball and getting that desire back and everything kind of falling into place, it didn't happen by chance. ... It was a lot of soul searching, a lot of talking to doctors and other people, a lot of different things I had to go through. But looking back on it, I don't think I would take it back because a lot of good things came from it in the long run. ... This has made me a much better man, a much better father, a much better husband, a much better friend and a much better person. That's why I feel like I'm not here for no reason."