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Rays' Gross made the right read: baseball

Gabe Gross started briefly as an Auburn quarterback, then committed to baseball.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Gabe Gross started briefly as an Auburn quarterback, then committed to baseball.

ST. PETERSBURG — Funny the way life works out.

Funny the way yesterday's disappointment fuels tomorrow's dream come true.

Funny the way walking away from one sport eventually looks as if he was walking toward another all along.

At the moment, there was nothing funny in the face of Gabe Gross. He stood on the top step of the Rays dugout, looking out toward the field, letting these moments before the ALCS begin washing over him. And, perhaps, wondering exactly how he got here.

Funny how a man arrives at his proper destination, isn't it? There are twists and turns, and ups and downs, and dominos tipping over and tumblers falling into place.

Also, there was a guy named Terry Bowden. Yes, that Terry Bowden.

Any day now, Rays fans should get around to thanking him.

These days, Rays fans know Gross as the quiet, friendly rightfielder who reminds you what Opie Taylor's descendants must look like. He's also a player with a good glove and a knack for the big hit. As Rays manager Joe Maddon suggests, his .242 batting averages doesn't hint at his contribution.

A decade ago Friday, however, Gross was a freshman quarterback making his first start for Bowden's Auburn University football team. Looking back, perhaps Tampa Bay fans should be thankful it didn't turn out any better than it did.

As it was, Gross didn't have much of a chance in one of Auburn's most dysfunctional years. Bowden resigned two weeks later, and the Tigers stumbled to a 5-6 season.

In the offseason, Auburn hired Tommy Tuberville as head coach, and Tuberville lacked the same relationship with Gross. Gross started the season opener in 1999, but he was benched at the half.

After another game, Gross decided to quit the team to concentrate on baseball.

Even now, you shudder at the thought. What if Gross had a little more success? What if Bowden had stayed around? What if Tuberville had convinced Gross to stick around?

In that case, would Gross still have blossomed into a No. 1 pick by the Blue Jays?

This is why he left. This is why Gross, son of a football player, stopped being a football player.

"I left so I would have the opportunity for something like this," Gross said. "It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make. It wasn't the biggest. It wasn't as big as God or getting married or talking about having children and when to have them. But it was the hardest."

After all, in the state of Alabama, college quarterback is a regal position. And besides, Gabe's father, Lee Gross, had been an All-SEC center at Auburn before playing four years, for the Saints (1975-77) and Baltimore (1979).

Thing is, neither of Gross' parents would have preferred for him to play college baseball. At the time, however, Gross wanted to try to play both sports.

Now it was time to make a decision. Gross decided to leave the football team to concentrate on baseball.

Worked out, didn't it?

Life is filled with little decisions like that. Once, Carl Crawford decided to turn down a football scholarship from Nebraska. Once, the Dodgers organization turned Edwin Jackson into a pitcher. Once, Rocco Baldelli wondered if he would ever be able to come back.

It was Baldelli's injury, late in spring training, that caused the Rays to look around for other outfielders. Reports came back on an outfielder that Milwaukee seemed ready to give up on. Some guy named Gross.

"When I would hear conversations, I wouldn't hear my name very much," Gross, 28, said. "It was difficult."

The Rays picked up Gross in a trade, and almost immediately, he began to invite fans to look inside his numbers. In May, he had an 11th-inning walkoff single to beat Mariano Rivera and the Yankees. In June, he had a 10th-inning home run to beat the White Sox. He had a pinch-hit walkoff double to beat the Astros.

Then there is his glove. Primarily, it's what has kept Gross in the lineup this year. For instance, did you see the ball he caught at the fence in Game 4 of the division series against the White Sox?

In hindsight, maybe Bowden should have played him at receiver.

Rays' Gross made the right read: baseball 10/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:52pm]
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