Grieve a year older, but swing is reborn

ARLINGTON, Texas - The Birthday Boy is back home and what better present for Ben Grieve's 24th on Thursday than the calming sense of security that comes from not having to relive last year's nightmare.

You can't put a candle in it, but peace of mind is a nice thing to have.

''Look at last year compared to this,'' Grieve said. ''It's a complete turnaround.''

No, A's left fielder Ben Grieve is not stinking out the joint this season. No, there are no reasons to write why the former Rookie of the Year's ability to hit has disappeared. No, this is not 1999, when Grieve endured the most unsightly of slumps, a .131 batting average with just one home run all the way up to May 19.

Instead, a serene Grieve on Thursday enjoyed a dinner out with his mom, Kathy, in his hometown, readying himself for a three-game series in the park where he hits best, The Ballpark in Arlington - where his father, Tom, announces Texas Rangers games and his friends and ex-schoolmates watch him and shout at him and say hi to him while he stretches.

Proof of his growth is in his successful start to his third big league season, a .288 batting average going into Friday's game - highest among all A's regulars - four home runs, 18 RBIs and the avoidance of last year's constantly-talked-about disastrous start.

''I didn't hit any home runs (in early '99), I wasn't driving anybody in ... but this (year) is solid,'' he said. ''I've always been a slow starter but I'm not off to a horrid start.''

In fact, what Grieve is doing is growing daily - and we're not talking about his built-to-homer 6 foot 4, 230-pound body.

Instead, he is improving at the plate steadily and showed as much in the most recent series in Kansas City, where, at the urging of manager Art Howe, he began driving the ball to the opposite field. No one has ever questioned Grieve's ability to pull the ball with power - he hit 28 home runs last year - but when Grieve starts lashing line drives to left-center field, as he did for three of his five hits in Kauffman Stadium, then his ability to climb to the .300 mark becomes more of a reality.

''I see him competing better this year,'' Howe said. ''He's got a game plan.''

Improvement is tangible. In Grieve's first 56 at-bats, he struck out 24 times and looked to be on a league-leading pace. Instead, he has disciplined himself and only fanned three times in his last 48 at-bats. Moreover, his famous struggles with left-handers a year ago (he hit just .156) appear to be fading, as Grieve is at a decent .259 vs. left-handers, including a game-winning grand slam off of Eddie Guardado in Minnesota last week.

What's more, since that .131 start to last year, Grieve has played 143 games. His totals in that time: a .300 batting average (145 for 483), 29 home runs and 93 RBIs. Pretty good year for a kid.

Grieve credits his success to an old-fashioned maxim: see the ball, hit the ball.

''Not thinking has a lot to do with it,'' he said laughing, noting that relying on instincts has helped, instead of dwelling on mechanics.

Relying on instinct? That's good. Because the A's have always believed in Grieve's natural ability, always held firm that his gorgeous natural uppercut swing could, one day, produce a 50-homer season.

Nobody in the organization deludes himself about Grieve's defense: it's substandard, pure and simple, and teams run on his arm constantly, sometimes flaunting its shortcomings by going from first to third on singles to left field, right in front of Grieve.

That being said, Howe took time to praise Grieve for some things: His arm has gotten better. He made two nice catches in the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, once running down a drive in the gap, another time charging into foul territory and snagging a fly ball from in front of a fan's outstretched hand.

''He's a work in progress,'' Howe said.

And now he comes to the park where he is best, at home. Grieve's six career homers at Texas are a personal best on the road, and his .318 batting average in Arlington is among his best, too. Yet, the taciturn youngster says he'd just as soon play out of sight of his old stomping grounds.

''If anything, it's more uncomfortable playing there, because everyone I know is watching me,'' he said. ''I usually feel a relief when I leave. It's more nerve-wracking there.''

He just wants to win and get back on the plane to be with his promising young teammates as they barnstorm the rest of the American League, guys like Eric Chavez (22), Miguel Tejada (23), Terrence Long (24), Tim Hudson (24) and Mark Mulder (22).

Often in talking about Grieve, general manager Billy Beane says, ''the only thing Ben Grieve needs to improve is more birthdays.''

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