Each of the St. Louis Cardinals' four "starting" outfielders has his own claim to fame. Mark Whiten has T-shirts commemorating his four home run game. Brian Jordan has football cards glorifying his days with the Atlanta Falcons. Ray Lankford has magazine covers projecting him for greatness.
And Bernard Gilkey? How about the best statistics of the bunch, plus a blossoming reputation as one of the National League's top leftfielders?
"He's the least glamorous and the most consistent," said St. Louis manager Joe Torre.
"He may not have the speed of the other three guys, he may not have the arm strength of the other three guys, and we didn't think he had the power of the other three guys _ until last year. But he does it with actions and with work ethic."
Last season, his third in the majors, Gilkey put his hard work into action. He batted .305, led the Cardinals with 61 extra base hits and 99 runs scored, and established career highs with 40 doubles (sixth in the NL), 16 home runs and 70 runs batted in. He also matched the major-league high with 19 outfield assists.
Not bad for a kid who was not selected in any of the 51 rounds of the 1984 draft despite a stellar career at St. Louis' University Park High. And not bad for a kid who signed with the Cardinals for a few thousand dollars as a free agent only after accepting a basketball scholarship from Drake University.
"I always felt I had the potential to do this," Gilkey said, "but I never knew if I would get the opportunity."
Slowly, he climbed through the Cardinals' system. After four seasons of rookie league and low-level Class A competition, Gilkey had a .231 batting average and not much time left to impress people. "He was not really considered a prospect in his early years," said Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill.
But in 1989, at Class AA Arkansas, Gilkey gave the Cardinals a glimpse of the future. He batted .278, scored 104 runs, totaled 57 RBI and stole 53 bases. By the end of the next season he was in the major leagues, playing for his hometown team in front of his family, standing at home plate in the stadium he used to pay his way into.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "I remember just wanting to be a Cardinal."
Gilkey performed well the next spring, and the Cardinals gave him the job as their starting leftfielder. Too bad.
Gilkey struggled with injuries and performance and eventually was sent back to the minor leagues. "We didn't do him any favors doing it that way," Torre said. "When he wasn't playing, he couldn't understand it. . . . When we sent him out, there was a lot of, I don't want to say hatred, but a lot of resentment from him."
"I was upset," Gilkey said. He was disappointed the team gave up on him, and he was disappointed with himself for not playing better. Now, though, he said the experience may have helped.
Gilkey returned in 1992 with a fresh attitude, something Torre noticed right away. Former Cardinal Milt Thompson, now with Philadelphia, was one of the players who helped Gilkey, convincing him the future was still bright.
"He kept at it," Thompson said. "He said he was going to work hard, and he's one of the best leftfielders in the game right now. . . . He works hard. He studies the game. He rarely makes mental mistakes. For a young player, he's got it pretty well together."
Gilkey, 27, said his goal now is consistency. He has back-to-back seasons just over .300 on the flip side of his baseball card, but still talks about the need to learn and improve. "I'm always trying to do the unexpected," Gilkey said. "I'm a very aggressive player. I like to surprise people. Things they say I can't do, I like to do to prove people wrong."
Torre has seen enough to say that Gilkey will be the regular leftfielder in his four-man outfield rotation, with Lankford in center, Whiten in right and Jordan as the swing man.
Maxvill, too, is impressed. "We kept trying to find somebody else to play leftfield," Maxvill said. "He's driven. I think his best is yet to come."
OTIS BERNARD GILKEY
Age: 27 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 190 Bats: Right Throws: Right
Personal: Married high school sweetheart, Patrice, during off-season. Enjoys bowling and billiards. Was a top prep basketball player at St. Louis' University City High.
Minor-league highlights: Led Cardinals minor-leaguers with 54 stolen bases in 1988 with Class A Springfield. Had 14 three-hit games and 22 outfield assists in 1989 with Class AA Arkansas. Was Class AAA All-Star in 1990 with Louisville, batting .295 with 46 RBI, 75 walks and 45 stolen bases. Also, became first professional batter in 37 years to get three hits in one inning (two singles, one home run vs. Nashville).
Year .Avg G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB A E
1990 .297 18 64 11 19 5 2 1 3 8 5 6 2 2
1991 .216 81 268 28 58 7 2 5 20 39 33 34 6 1
1992 .302 131 384 56 116 19 4 7 43 39 52 18 9 5
1993 .305 137 557 99 170 23 5 16 70 56 66 15 19 8