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Grieve uncertain about road he will take

For most of us, the junction isn't that daunting. There are traffic lights, big green signs and maybe some directions jotted down on a piece of paper. Usually, too, we have some sense of where we're going.

But is it so for Devil Rays outfielder Ben Grieve?

As he enters his sixth full major-league season, the once can't-miss prospect who was an American League Rookie of the Year stands at the crossroads of his career.

Behind Grieve are three tremendous seasons with the Athletics followed by two poor ones with the Rays.

Ahead of him is uncertainty.

"Yes, I am at a crossroads," Grieve said. "If I go out and have a good year this year, then next year I will sign with a team and hopefully be a part of someone's everyday lineup. If I go out and have a bad year, then I'm going to be looking for a job somewhere. This is the crossroads, and the best way to approach it is not to even think about it. Go do it. If it happens, it happens."

Grieve, 26, wants to recover the days when the game was instinctive and the numbers showed it. He wants to prove that the player who had 73 home runs and 279 RBIs through his first three seasons is the same one now wearing a Rays uniform.

Mostly, he wants the fun to return.

"The last two years, coming to the ballpark and playing wasn't fun," Grieve said. "I looked forward to the days off rather than the days we were playing. Ideally, you want to come to the field with a better attitude, an attitude that you're going to have fun and play hard, and the last two years weren't like that.

"It's almost like what comes first? Do you play well and then the attitude comes, or do you have a good attitude and then find yourself playing well? Maybe you just have to have the attitude there whether you're playing well or not. If you just keep it, it works hand in hand. You can't go around moping then have a good day and all of a sudden you're happy. You have to be in that frame of mind for the whole time."

Before he can decide which road he'll take, Grieve has to wash away the residue of the past two seasons. Acquired by the Rays, along with cash, for pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Cory Lidle on Jan. 8, 2001, Grieve brought high hopes to a team wallowing in despair.

In three seasons with the Athletics, who made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1994 draft, Grieve was an emerging star. As a rookie in 1998, he hit .288 with 18 home runs and 89 RBIs. The next season he had 28 homers and 86 RBIs, then 27 home runs and 107 RBIs in 2000.

But Grieve, the son of Tom Grieve, a nine-year major-league player and the Rangers general manager from 1984-1994, was traded to a team desperate for a star and more desperate for a leader.

The young Grieve struggled with the expectations.

"A lot of it was that the human in him wanted him to do so much and prove so much, especially when he was traded," said designated hitter Greg Vaughn, one of Grieve's biggest supporters in the Rays clubhouse. "He was young when he was traded. Look, before I was traded, it had been eight years. So, he comes in here and he tries to impress, and that makes us not as good as we can be if we just take our time, pitch to pitch."

First base coach Billy Hatcher, the only member of the coaching staff who was here when Grieve arrived, said the responsibility was unfair given the roster.

"It's always nice to have a supporting cast around you," Hatcher said. "If you look at things in Oakland, he had a pretty good cast. All he had to do was go out and play. Over here people began asking him to be a leader. People have to remember, Ben is one of our youngest players. Whether he's ready to be a leader or not is unsure. But if he gets into a situation where he can just go out and perform and take care of Ben Grieve, you'll see the real Ben Grieve."

Grieve thinks that his first two seasons in Tampa Bay were not the real Ben Grieve. In 2001 he hit .264 with 11 HRs and 72 RBIs, and last season he had 19 homers and 64 RBIs while hitting .251.

"I think after having two rough years, you definitely question yourself," Grieve said. "I know I'm capable of becoming a good hitter again, but you do question yourself. Two years, it's a long time to not have done much. "But when I think about it I go back and look at the bigger picture and I see myself on a baseball field rather than doing something else. I'm not an unconfident player. I still relax and have fun."

Therein lies another mystery. Grieve seldom shows emotions on the field or in the dugout. And although teammates and coaches tell stories about the occasional prank he plays, Grieve may always face questions about his passion for the game.

That, Vaughn said, is unfair.

"People take his demeanor as if he doesn't care. Well, he does care," Vaughn said. "He just does things in different ways. "Until you really know a person, you can't make those types of allegations about them. It's easy for you to make assessments about people without knowing who they are. Ben does care."

A free agent after this season, Grieve said he has never been an emotional player and changing now would be disingenuous.

"It's inside," he said. "I chose not to express it on the field. After doing it for so long, I can't. If I did it, it wouldn't be real, so why change now?"

Grieve said it is "fourth and one on the goal line and time is running out."

"I would rather go out and hit .330, and hit 30 HRs and 100 RBIs and make $50,000 than to hit .225 again and make $5-million."