Hoffpauir optimistic heading into spring camp

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2003

SARASOTA, Fla. &045; Josh Hoffpauir holds no grudges.

He isn’t upset about the Oakland A’s taking away his jersey before he really got a chance. He’s not down about toiling in obscurity among pro baseball’s minor leagues.

Nor is he pessimistic about playing in the farm system of the Baltimore Orioles, a team that hasn’t had a winning season at the major league level in five seasons.

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There’s a sense of optimism for the former Vidalia High School standout this spring, part of a new level of hope for everyone in pro baseball right about now as spring training gets into full swing.

Part of it is Hoffpauir has a new lease on his pro baseball life with the Orioles, and he is determined to make the best of the opportunity. But not only is it a chance to merely hang around.

He’s got a chance to make the AAA club and be one level away from the majors.

&uot;I think it’s more of a challenge,&uot; said Hoffpauir, who reported to minor league camp in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday. &uot;I’m going in and going to be fighting for a job. When you get to this level, you’re fighting for a job every day. I’m going into spring training like I’m trying to win a job. I’ve still got a lot of people to prove wrong.&uot;

The job up for grabs is a starting second baseman for either Class AA Bowie or Class AAA Ottawa, but the biggest hurdle Hoffpauir is over is moving up out of Class A ball.

But whatever happens remains to be seen. Team officials won’t make assignments until just prior to the end of spring training, and much of Hoffpauir’s fate rests on the shoulder of Brian Roberts, the starting second baseman at Ottawa who could get the call from the bigs.

&uot;Brian Roberts is in our major league camp,&uot; said Tripp Norton, the Orioles’ assistant farm director. &uot;Jerry Hairston is our second baseman as of right now. Whether (Roberts) makes the team as a utility player or whatever remains to be seen. We haven’t sat down and talked about anything.&uot;

All Hoffpauir can do right now is play, and whatever happens happens.

The new club

This season will be his first full one with the Orioles organization after joining the team just at the first of June last season. And to get the immediate assignment to double-A was reassuring.

He never got out of Class A with Oakland, and getting to double-A is sort of the defining line between those who can make it and those who can’t. Just last season he played alongside Pat Hentgen, Izzy Molina, and Christ Brock and called with Tim Raines Jr. his roommate.

&uot;I’m an undrafted guy,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;Some guys didn’t think I’d have a shot. That’s kind of my driving force. I have nobody on my team who was drafted later than the 10th round, and here I am undrafted and I’m playing at their level. That’s kind of my driving force &045; proving people wrong when they doubted me. You always love that.&uot;

Hoffpauir spent the remainder of the year on a Bowie Baysox team that struggled in the standings with a 55-85 mark, but he made the best of the audition. He finished with a .268 batting average with 302 at-bats in 86 games while spending some time in the leadoff spot and playing a number of positions.

His average wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was among the better marks on a team that hit .255. Raines hit .261 in 391 at-bats.

&uot;He was our leadoff guy and really sparked the Bowie ball club offensively,&uot; Norton said. &uot;He really provided an offensive spark. He’s a guy that can come off the bench and get a hit. He can play anywhere on the diamond. He’s a hard-nosed player.

&uot;I think his bat will carry him. It’s like the old saying: if you can handle the bat, they’ll find a place for you.&uot;

Fighting a slump

The bat carried Hoffpauir from the start, and he really doesn’t have any regrets about his offense.

But there was a point during the year where his numbers dropped. He hit around .300 in June and .300 in August but dropped down to about .180 in July.

The Baysox welcomed a new manager at the time with Dave Stockstill taking over the position after Dave Cash got released.

Stockstill bumped Hoffpauir down to the No. 7 spot after he spent the first month hitting at the top of the lineup.

&uot;We had the coaching change at the All-Star break,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;I was hitting leadoff and No. 2 hole all year and leading the team in hitting at the time. Then he told me he was moving me to the No. 7 hole. It made me mad when it should have motivated me. I kind of got lackadaisical, and the whole month I was frustrated when it really wasn’t his decision. It was the organization’s.&uot;

It was the big club that moved him down in the order to move Raines into the leadoff spot. Hoffpauir started off hitting leadoff ahead of Raines, but Raines &045; who has time logged in the majors &045; got the switch.

&uot;I think the biggest thing I learned out of it was it doesn’t matter where you hit in the lineup,&uot; Hoffpauir said. &uot;It’s your opportunity to produce. I’ve learned from it, and hopefully it’ll make me a better ball player.&uot;

The future

Although there is nothing set in stone, Norton said initial plans are to keep Hoffpauir in Bowie another season as a second baseman-utility player this year.

All eyes are on Roberts, however, as the Orioles open camp with Hairston being targeted for the leadoff spot. Hairston led the team in batting average (.291) and on-base percentage (.355) last year, but Roberts, 25, may be the club’s fastest runner.

&uot;Roberts was one of our first-round picks in 1999,&uot; Norton said. &uot;We had seven of the first 50. He saw some time in the big leagues in 2001 and last year. You’d like for him to play every day and get 400 at-bats, but his ability makes him interesting to the major league club.&uot;

Roberts may be better suited at a utility position with the team, but Norton noted there’s competition for that position, too &045; Melvin Mora, LSU product Jeff Reboulet and others are vying for that spot, and the Orioles signed Deivi Cruz to play shortstop.

&uot;It’s a matter of whether we go with a veteran guy and send Brian to play every day or bring him on the team in that spot,&uot; Norton said.

If Roberts gets the call, that would open up a spot at Ottawa &045; one Hoffpauir would love to fill. There’s nothing guaranteed he would get the call, but now it gives him something to shoot for this spring if the dominoes do fall that way.

And now the guy who was just happy to get a contract to play pro ball after not getting drafted could have a shot at playing Class AAA ball.

From there, a good season and an injury at the big club could be the only thing separating one from playing in the majors.

&uot;I want to go play every day and have an opportunity to produce,&uot; he said. &uot;To be honest with you, if I’m at triple-A or double-A, it really doesn’t matter. When I first started playing pro ball, my goal was to get to double-A or triple-A. Now that I’ve got this high, I want to make it. If I spend one day in the big leagues, then I think my career will be a success.

&uot;One thing being released has taught me is when they take the uniform away from you, it hurts. I don’t want that to happen again. As long as I have an opportunity to play every day, I’ll be fine.&uot;