It wasn't the kind of photograph a general manager likes to view: a player claimed on waivers in the off-season—one invited to spring training to compete for an outfield spot despite not having fully recovered from elbow surgery—astride an eight-foot alligator. Yet that's what Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski saw when rookie Bruce Aven showed up one day in late March flashing snapshots from an off-day spent at a wildlife attraction near Florida's camp in Viera, Fla. "Shock," is how Dombrowski describes his reaction. "He appeared to be in control, but it looked pretty dangerous to me."
"When I came to spring training I asked if there was any way I could get behind the scenes at Gatorland, and before I knew it I was in a pit sitting on a gator's back," explains Aven, a native of Orange, Texas, whose reptilian fascination was hatched during too many hours spent watching Animal Planet. "When I asked the guide how you know when they're going to attack, he said, 'They're just waiting for you to make a mistake.' "
That's how the 27-year-old Aven, who's known, naturally, as Gator to his teammates, has attacked National League pitchers this season: by waiting patiently for them to make a mistake. He had only 19 career major league at bats, with the Indians in 1997, when he made the Marlins' Opening Day roster, but after distinguishing himself as a pinch-hitter in the early going, Aven has become a regular in the Florida outfield. Last weekend he went 5 for 15 with two homers and 11 RBIs in the Marlins' three-game sweep of the Devil Rays, driving in five runs with his second grand slam of the year and a sacrifice fly on Sunday. For the season he was hitting .354 with five homers and 27 RBIs and a .464 average with runners in scoring position.
Aven also was Florida's top regular pinch hitter, batting .357 in 14 at bats with a single-season club-record nine pinch RBIs, four of which came on a game-winning grand slam on May 7 at Dodger Stadium. "This is the first time I've ever been a pinch hitter," says Aven, a 30th-round pick by Cleveland in the 1994 draft. "I try not to think too much but just look for pitches to hit hard."
Aven is also playing without pain in his right arm for the first time in more than a year. In October 1997 he had a cyst removed from his right shoulder, but during rehab the following winter felt a twinge in his right elbow. Still, he went to spring training in hopes of winning the Indians' fourth outfield spot. When the elbow continued to bother Aven, he was sent to Triple A Buffalo. After two stints on the disabled list, he had surgery last June to fix what he thought was a strained ligament. During the operation it was discovered that the ligament was torn. "When I woke up," Aven says, "I was told I'd had Tommy John surgery."
Aven's recovery was hampered when, as a result of the operation, he lost the use of the last two fingers of his right hand for nearly six months. Despite questions about whether he'd play again, the Marlins snatched Aven when Cleveland placed him on waivers last October. "We did a thorough report and were convinced that he had a good chance to come all the way back," says Dombrowski. "Sometimes with our financial situation we have to gamble on inexpensive players."
Aven, who makes the rookie-minimum $200,000, has been worth the wager, but the Marlins had better keep him occupied. "When I threw my arm out, I was sitting around at home watching TV, thinking of all the things I wanted to do," says Aven. "Wrestle a gator is one of them."