Mariners outfielder Gabe Gross played quarterback for Auburn but he was no Cam Newton
Gabe Gross, battling for a job with the Mariners as a backup outfielder, was a starting quarterback at Auburn as a freshman before quitting football to concentrate on baseball.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — A dozen years later, Gabe Gross has few regrets about the career decision that split him from a sport he loved.
Gross, a former first-round draft pick, is in Mariners camp on a nonroster invitation this spring, trying to win a job as a backup outfielder.
He spent much of the offseason looking on in awe as Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton led Auburn to a national college football title.
Back in the late 1990s, Gross was in the same position as Newton, quarterbacking Auburn amid the enormous expectations of a rabid fan base. He can largely relate to what Newton went through, even though he's quick to admit he could never pull off many of the same on-field exploits as the Heisman winner.
"Most people who played football at Auburn lived somewhat vicariously through this year's team," admits Gross, who didn't play in a 5-4 win by the Mariners over the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, but managed a two-run double the previous day. "There have been a lot of great football players there. I was not one. But still, I enjoyed my time at Auburn, did the most I could for them and yeah, I lived through this year's team, as did a lot of people."
A big difference between the quarterbacks — other than Gross running out of bounds to escape linebackers while Newton simply steamrollered them — is that Gross had to quarterback the team as a true freshman in 1998. Auburn was ravaged by injuries that season and the fallout from what became a 3-8 campaign eventually prompted Gross to leave football for baseball.
He'd been playing both sports at Auburn because of a deal he and coach Terry Bowden had worked out when Gross was recruited out of Northview High School in Dothan, Ala. But Bowden resigned midway through the 1998 debacle and Auburn eventually hired Tommy Tuberville.
Gross had taken over the QB job early in 1998, when the starting quarterback went down.
"When I came in the game for the first time, the fourth game of the year against Tennessee, we had seven out of the 11 guys on offense who were either true or redshirt freshmen," Gross said.
Gross nearly pulled off an upset of that Tennessee squad, losing 17-9 when his final pass fell short in the end zone. He wound up throwing for 1,222 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games.
But the following season, new coach Tuberville wasn't thrilled with how baseball was interfering with Gross' ability to attend spring football workouts.
Tuberville benched Gross midway through the 1999 season opener after he'd thrown two interceptions. By midseason, Gross, glued to the bench, decided to quit the football team and focus on baseball.
"I found myself back at third string and had to make a decision: was it worth staying with a football team just to be part of a football team and possibly give up on baseball?" he said. "Or, was it worth it to quit baseball and concentrate on football because that was really what it was going to take to be a starter again."
Though Gross was on a football scholarship, Auburn's baseball coach, Hal Baird, had been touting him as a future pro. After three seasons at Auburn, the Toronto Blue Jays made Gross their No. 1 draft pick in 2001.
Gross knows he made the right choice in sticking with baseball, though the decade since being drafted hasn't been a dream.
He struggled for playing time in Toronto after his 2004 debut, was traded to Milwaukee, then moved on to Tampa Bay, where he was part of the World Series squad in 2008. Gross spent last season in Oakland, where he hit .239 in 222 at-bats spread over 105 games.
That .239 average is also his career mark after 1,461 major league at-bats. It's one reason Gross has to keep moving on to find work.
"It's been a wild ride," he said. "It hasn't turned out exactly as I'd expected. But I've played parts of seven seasons at the major-league level. I've been to a World Series. I've just played for some tremendous teams."
The speed with which Gross used to run for his life from linebackers has served him well as an outfielder, despite his 6-foot-3, 220-pound size.
Gross, 31, has good defensive range and can play all three outfield spots, though he's predominantly been a right fielder. That spot is locked up by Ichiro, but the Mariners could use help in left and possibly in center, given that they plan to give Franklin Gutierrez more rest.
With Jody Gerut announcing his retirement, the remaining major leaguers in the backup outfield mix — assuming Michael Saunders and Milton Bradley share the everyday job — are Gross and Ryan Langerhans.
"I'm still hopeful that, at some point, I'll get some more regular playing time," Gross said. "But I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help teams win. And I enjoy being here."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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