Once shut out of baseball, Jay Gibbons is living his dream again
Jay Gibbons couldn't be more ecstatic. The vagabond outfielder spent Thursday unpacking, organizing and child-proofing his rental house in Peoria, Ariz., and finished a couple of hours before his wife, Laura, and their three children arrived from California. On Friday he reported to the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training camp, where he'll have a chance to continue his comeback on the team that he grew up loving as a kid.
Gibbons can't believe how his life has turned around. For the past three seasons, he was on baseball's unofficial black list, feeling like no one wanted -- or trusted -- him because of his admitted steroid use.
"This is an unbelievable time in my life,'' Gibbons says. "I didn't know this day was ever going to come. It's surreal. I'm playing for my dream team. I went to Dodgers games as a kid with my dad. I have a lot of great memories of Dodger Stadium. I remember Fernando-mania. I remember Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia and Dusty Baker in leftfield.''
Now, the 33-year-old Gibbons will be given a chance to play left field for the Dodgers. That job could be a platoon with the left-handed batting Gibbons and righty Marcus Thames. Or, Gibbons could be used as a pinch-hitter off the bench. For Gibbons, either is fine.
"I have a family and a chance to play baseball again, so I am going to relax and enjoy it,'' Gibbons says. "I hated the way my career was going to end. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I don't know if I would have ever gotten over it.''
Gibbons hit 121 home runs in seven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. He had seasons where he hit 23, 26 and 28 home runs. He had 100 RBI sin the only season in which he had 500 at-bats.
But, in 2007, Gibbons hit .230, the worst season of his career, and in December, his name came out in the Mitchell Report, an independent investigation on steroids in baseball.
The following spring, the Orioles released Gibbons, even though he had two years and $12 million remaining on his contract. He could see it coming. "I was feeling left out,'' he said.
Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte -- other players who admitted using performance-enhancing drugs -- were able to keep playing baseball, but Gibbons, who said he used steroids to help him deal with wrist injuries, wasn't able to overcome the stigma.
"The Orioles couldn't find a place for me, despite the contract,'' Gibbons says. "The Mitchell Report was embarrassing. It was a tough time in my life. I had a lot of support from my family and friends.
"I like to say that it was hard for me to find a job because I didn't play well, hit .230 and had injuries in 2007. Playing bad didn't help.''
No matter the reason, finding another job was difficult. Gibbons' baseball friends lobbied general managers on his behalf. He went to camp with the Milwaukee Brewers and Florida Marlins, and even though he hit well, he was released by both teams.
"He had five RBIs the day before he was released by the Marlins,'' says his dad, Jim, a retired vice president of human resources for a company that manufactured furniture. "It was disappointing and frustrating, but what could you do? Other players (named in the Mitchell Report) were getting jobs, but it wasn't happening for him.''
Jay played for two independent league teams, one in Newark, N.J., and the other on Long Island. But, it wasn't easy living in a cramped apartment, playing in front of small crowds and being away from his family.
Jay wrote letters to all teams except the Orioles, saying he would play for free or donate part of his salary to the team's charity.
"After begging so many people so many times, I thought it was time to retire,'' Gibbons says. "For whatever reason, the stigma (of steroids) didn't seem like it was going to give me another chance.''
He came to that realization in July 2009 while playing for Newark. Gibbons told his dad that he was going to give up on baseball.
"He said, 'What am I doing here?''' Jim Gibbons says. "He was away from his family. He was playing in front of 10 people. I was at the ballpark that night, and I remember thinking as I left that it might be the last time I see him play.''
But, later, as Jim Gibbons thought about it, he called his son.
"I told him that he had to do what was right for his family. But, watching him play, I could see that he had bat speed. I told him that he had world-class bat speed, and that he could still play.''
Jay left the independent league and went home. He was so down, he couldn't turn on a baseball game until the postseason.
Instead of playing, he visited schools and tried to keep kids away from steroids. "I told them there is the right way and the wrong way to do things,'' he said. "I did it the wrong way. I was looking for an easy way out, and look where that got me. I had to learn the hard way.''
His career started on the path to recovery when a team in Venezuela invited him to play winter ball. He accepted the invite and when he hit well, he caught the eye of a Dodgers scout, who recommended the team sign him.
A year ago, Gibbons had to prove himself in a spring camp for prospects. "I was hanging out with 18- and 19-year olds,'' Jay says.
He was hitting .347 with 19 home runs and 83 RBIs in 95 games for Triple-A Albuquerque when the Dodgers called in mid-August to say he was being promoted.
Jay called his wife and his dad.
"I almost fell out of my chair,'' Jim says. "I can't describe how I felt. I called his wife and said, 'Is this for real? What if they change their mind?'''
Wearing Dodger Blue, he averaged .280 with six home runs in 37 games last season. During his first national anthem at Dodger Stadium, Jay wore sunglasses so to hide his tears. His dad felt the emotion as well.
"I was teary-eyed,'' Jim says. "It was an emotional time because I knew how hard he worked. He beat the odds just to make the major leagues.
"He played in the minors and never used steroids. They have testing programs, and it was never an issue with him. It was tough because he was out of baseball for the prime years of his career.''
Despite that, there was good news during his time away. Jay and Laura had three kids. Their twin sons, Gavin and Grayer, are 2 and their daughter, Giada, is 1 ½.
Fatherhood and baseball are the perfect storm of redemption. He hopes his kids can grow up watching him play for the Dodgers and they can run around the home clubhouse
"Baseball use to consume me, but fatherhood is so unbelievable, you have to be one to understand,'' Jay says. "This is so gratifying that I don't know if I'd trade the experiences I had to get here. Baseball doesn't last forever. I'm proof of that. So, I'm going to enjoy it. I can't wait for camp to get started.''