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
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
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."