LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - When Marcus Giles jogged in the outfield with the Braves at the start of Sunday afternoon's workout, he had already fielded ground balls on a back diamond with first base coach Glenn Hubbard for a half an hour.
This was a guy so eager to get to spring training, he showed up early, with pitchers and catchers. Your first inclination is to dismiss Giles' enthusiasm as youthful exuberance, but then you realize he takes the same approach to the most mundane of tasks.
"I've seen plenty of ballplayers way better than me, but they didn't have the work ethic," said Giles, who is Atlanta's fifth second baseman since 1997. "It comes down to how bad do you want it?"
Badly enough to endure 110-degree temperatures in Macon, Ga., to work on his defense. Giles, a converted outfielder, accepted a challenge from Hubbard, then a Class A Macon coach, in 1998 to cut his 20 first-half errors in half. Every day at one o'clock, on a sweltering diamond surrounded by an empty grandstand, he would field 50-75 ground balls, then swing a bat for 15 minutes as Hubbard threw curveballs to him.
GILES' DEFENSE at the start of that season? "Brutal," he said. "I didn't want the ball hit to me."
And by the end? Giles met Hubbard's challenge, committing just five errors in the second half. The next year, at Class A Myrtle Beach, he committed eight errors in 126 games.
"He's got a great work ethic," said Hubbard, who has served as Giles' mentor for the last four years. "He's a throwback, like (former Atlanta second baseman) Mark Lemke. He's had to work hard because scouts said he wouldn't get out of 'A' ball."
Giles, 23, has met every challenge issued by baseball's talent evaluators, who raised considerable doubt that he would ever play in the big leagues, pointing at his lack of size (5-foot-8 and 180 pounds) and draft position (53rd round in 1996).
BUT IN AN AGE in which baseball players are measured by the size of their contracts, Giles is something of a throwback to a different era, when a player's value was measured by his commitment to the game. He has twice been voted league MVP (South Atlantic League, '98; Carolina League, '99), he's a career .322 hitter in the minors, and he works harder than most 10-year veterans.
"I've heard about my (lack of) size all my life," said Giles, whose emergence last summer prompted the Braves to release veteran second baseman Quilvio Veras. "It makes you work that much harder. It's gratifying to prove them wrong."
Though his defense continues to receive a bad rap, Giles has won over his legions of skeptics and his teammates. Chipper Jones says Giles has the potential to hit 30 home runs. Greg Maddux says only a handful of second basemen in the big leagues have Giles' power. Manager Bobby Cox suggests he'll become a 20-home run, 20-steal player.
"THERE AREN'T TOO MANY teams that can boast of a second baseman with the kind of power he's got," Jones said. "There's no doubt in my mind he'll hit 20 home runs this year. He's going to be good whether he's hitting second or eighth."
Maddux was convinced of Giles' ability when pitchers started pounding him inside with fastballs last summer in response to Giles consistently driving pitches on the outer half of the plate into the right-center field gap.
"He got pounded pretty good for a couple of days, and then he started hitting those pitches to left," Maddux said. "If you see a guy consistently make outs the same way, you know he's got no chance. But Marcus didn't let that happen. When I saw him make an adjustment, I knew he'd be all right."
Giles, younger brother of Pirates All-Star outfielder Brian Giles, is forcing the Braves to reconsider their plans to install Wilson Betemit at shortstop and shift Rafael Furcal to second. He takes ground balls with Hubbard on a back diamond before every morning's workout and now feels so comfortable with his defense he demands the ball be hit to him.
"Obviously, what he can do offensively is above what he's accomplished defensively, but I think he's going to continue to get better," Jones said. "I'm convinced he can play second base up here."
Said Cox: "He was never noted for his glove, but he's very good there now."
GILES SAYS he believed in himself even when no one else did, with the exception of Hubbard. He is the kind of guy who runs on and off the field, dedicates himself to improving his skills every day, and isn't overwhelmed at the thought of being the Braves' regular second baseman.
"You have to believe you can play up here and you can't be afraid of it when you get that chance," Giles said. "The point is, if you come up here with any doubts you can do it, you won't be able to. I don't want to be cocky, but at the same time I don't want to lose my confidence. I'm curious to see what I can do up here."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.