Johnny Oliver is always quick with the jokes and wisecracks in the dugout to keep his teammates loose, but the GreenJackets outfielder is the first to admit it's been tough to find his smile these days.
The 21-year-old has been sidelined the past three weeks with hamstring and lower back problems, and will undergo an MRI this week to find out if he will be able to play again season.
But this is just another in a long line of tough breaks for the former first-round draft choice.
"Call it bad luck, I guess," said Oliver, who is batting .208 with no home runs and seven RBI in 120 at-bats with the Jackets. "I've battled injuries my whole career. It's been one thing after another."
The Dallas, Pa., native, was drafted by Cincinnati with the 25th-overall pick in the 1996 draft, but has yet to show signs of the promise the Reds had hoped to see.
Though this is his fourth year in the minors, Oliver has not played a full season. He batted .216 with 13 homers in his first three pro seasons, which was spent mostly at low-Class A Charleston (W.Va.) in the South Atlantic League.
After missing all but 11 games in 1998 with a torn left hamstring, Oliver began the 1999 season with the Reds' high-Class A affiliate in Clinton, Iowa.
Oliver was batting just .115 with one home run and two RBI in 11 games when he was traded to the Red Sox for minor-league journeyman infielder Chris Snopek in mid-May. He welcomed the trade as a chance to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, but more bad luck was on the way.
Off to a solid start with the Jackets, Oliver was shaken in early June when his girlfriend's parents and sister were seriously injured in a car wreck in Pennsylvania.
Then, last month, the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder began to experience pain in his lower back and right hamstring. Doctors think the problem could be nerve-related and may require surgery.
"It's real tough from a mental aspect knowing you haven't had too much success in pro ball," said Oliver, who was still on the active roster as of Saturday but could go on the disabled list as early as today.
"It's also frustrating because the team's playing great ball right now and you want to be out there. You just try to have fun with the guys and be a part of it.
Jackets manager Billy Gardner and hitting coach Gomer Hodge appreciate how Oliver has tried to remain a vital part of the team during the second-half pennant race.
"Johnny's a great kid who knows how to keep his teammates loose and having fun," Hodge said. "Believe me, that's important. The guys on this team, I think, respect him and like having him around even when he's not playing."
"It's another tough break for him, but the organization thinks highly of him," Gardner said. "Hopefully, he can get himself healthy soon, because we'd like to have him in the lineup."
Oliver knows he has a lot to prove. To the Reds. To the Red Sox. To himself.
During a wave of firings and resignations by some of the Reds' top scouts and scouting directors the past three years, the Cincinnati media reported that Oliver's pick was the reason for the housecleaning.
"I felt like the trade was a new door for me and it feels good to be with the Red Sox organization," said Oliver, who signed with the Reds for $672,000.
"The Red Sox told me they wouldn't have traded for me if they didn't want me, and that's nice to know."
Jackets pitching coach Larry Pierson is holding a three-day instructional pitching camp for children ages 12-and-up at Lake Olmstead Stadium, beginning Aug. 17.
The camp, which will run from 10 a.m. to noon each day, will feature drills and personalized instruction from Pierson and members of the Jackets pitching staff. Cost is $75.
Registration deadline is Aug. 13. For more information or to register, call the Jackets at 736-7889.
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