Jay Gibbons winced through the second half of Sweet Home Alabama, not merely because of its predictable denouement. Watching the movie with his girlfriend, Lindsey, in a Long Beach, Calif., theater in October, the Orioles rightfielder felt moisture and pressure under the cast on his right wrist, which had been operated on two weeks earlier. In pain not even Reese Witherspoon could palliate, Gibbons removed the cast in the theater lobby, saw redness and swelling, and drove straight to a nearby hospital, where he spent four nights recovering from a postoperative infection. "During the movie my girlfriend was wondering what was wrong with me," Gibbons says. "I wasn't laughing or anything."
Although he hit 28 home runs in 136 games, the amiable Gibbons, 26, spent his second major league season with a perpetual grimace. His chronic wrist pain was caused by two undissolved sutures—from an August 2001 operation to repair a broken hamate bone and cartilage damage—pressing against a nerve. The pain, especially acute after checked or missed swings, forced Gibbons to lengthen his normally compact stroke and left him tinkering with his swing mechanics almost daily. "The day or two he would feel really good, you could see the pop in his bat," says manager Mike Hargrove. "Then all of a sudden the wrist would start bothering him, and you could see his swing going haywire again."
A third operation and a winter of rehab put Gibbons, who the Orioles believe has 40-homer potential, at his healthiest in two years. A full season from Gibbons is needed to boost Baltimore's punchless lineup, which last season was 13th in the AL in runs scored, 13th in on-base percentage and last in batting average (.246). It's a measure of Baltimore's anemia that Hargrove considers free-agent shortstop Deivi Cruz (.263 average, .294 OBP in '02), the lone position player added this winter, an "offensive upgrade."
That lack of pop was most evident in the season's final five weeks, when the Orioles scored 2.9 runs per game and lost 32 of their last 36 games to finish fourth in the division for the fifth straight year. Already struggling to get by with an ailing Gibbons and without DH David Segui, who didn't play after April 26 because of an injured left wrist tendon, Baltimore lost centerfielder Gary Matthews Jr. to tendinitis in his right wrist on Aug. 23, the date when the team's stretch dive began. "When Gary went down, it was the breaking point for our offense," Hargrove says. "We ran out of bodies."
After failing to impress in stints with four National League teams over three-plus seasons, Matthews was traded from the Mets to the Orioles in the opening week of 2002 and turned in his best year as a major leaguer: a .276 average, 15 steals and strong play in centerfield. "I was the same way in the minors—I started slow for a few seasons, then built up," says Matthews, 28. "I was always asked to be a power hitter, but last year I realized that you've got to learn to hit before you hit for power."
Matthews will bat second behind Jerry Hairston, who reclaimed the leadoff job he lost last April with a .355 on-base percentage and 12 stolen bases after the All-Star break. Though he acknowledges that he has to stop chasing fastballs up and trying to hit them out of the park, Hairston nonetheless believes his poor start—he was batting .222 after 31 games—was the result of being tentative at the plate. "I was trying to be the perfect leadoff hitter, being patient, working walks," Hairston says, "but I was too passive. I'd go up taking and end up in 0-and-2, 1-and-2 counts an awful lot."
During a batting practice chat last summer, Johnny Damon of the Red Sox reminded Hairston that Rickey Henderson was famously aggressive as a leadoff hitter. "Now," says Hairston, "I sit on the bench and think, Next time, be the aggressor. I've got the bat in my hand, I'm up. there to hit and dictate the at bat."
For Baltimore it's all in the wrists.