ATLANTA -- Journeyman. It's the most dreaded of labels for a professional athlete.
Just ask Jesse Garcia, who showed up at spring training last year for the Atlanta Braves coming off a .300 season at Triple-A.
What did that earn him? For the first two weeks, he didn't even get in a game, relegated to the back fields with all the up-and-comers and down-and-outers.
"That was a low point," Garcia said. "Sometimes, you just have to sit back and wonder, 'What kind of player am I? Am I good enough or not?"'
He stuck with it, played in the Triple-A All-Star game, and finally convinced a few people that he might be useful as a utility infielder in the majors.
At 30, Garcia made Atlanta's opening-day roster. With shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Marcus Giles plagued by injuries, Garcia has become an integral part of the team.
As of Monday, Garcia was batting .313 with one homer - his first in the big leagues since 1999 - and eight RBIs. He's been one of the few bright spots for an ailing team, which is two games under .500 as it bids for a 13th straight division title.
But Garcia knows his position is still tenuous. He's a journeyman, remember? Those guys can never get too comfortable.
Giles and Furcal could return to the lineup Tuesday for the start of a series at St. Louis. If that happens, Garcia will shuffle back to the bench, hopeful that his contributions so far strengthened his spot on the 25-man roster.
"He's a grinder, man," said teammate Mark DeRosa, who went through a similar effort to prove himself. "He's willing to do whatever it takes to stick here."
Garcia has been Atlanta's version of Forrest Gump, popping up in the middle of all sorts of improbable moments this season.
He homered last month against Florida - off World Series hero Josh Beckett, no less. Last week, Garcia helped turn a triple play against San Diego.
Over the weekend, he rallied the Braves to a win over Houston - first, convincing the umps that he was grazed by a pitch in the eighth, leading to two runs; then, driving in the tying run with a ninth-inning triple.
"It's just a matter of getting an opportunity," Garcia said. "I'm doing fairly well, but I've got to keep it up."
Better than anyone, he knows past perceptions are never very far behind.
Garcia is only 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds - hardly the prototype player for this homer-crazy era. He might have fit in better in the 1970s and '80s, where a middle infielder didn't have to worry about hitting for power. These days, everyone is expected to knock the ball over the fence.
A superb athlete, Garcia played four sports in high school and won several titles as a Golden Gloves boxer. But his baseball career got sidetracked in 1994, when he missed the entire season because of pneumonia.
Garcia struggled to catch up, finally making it to the big leagues in 1999 with Baltimore. But he lasted less than two weeks, getting farmed out when Delino DeShields came off the disabled list.
"He had the defensive skills," remembered Frank Wren, now the Braves' assistant general manager and GM of the Orioles at the time. "He didn't have the offensive skills."
DeShields isn't around anymore, but Garcia kept plugging away. After spending most of 1999 and 2000 with Baltimore's Triple-A team - with brief stints in the majors both years - he was traded to the Braves in one of those obscure offseason deals.
Garcia wanted a fresh start. Instead, he found more of the same.
He was usually called up by the Braves when rosters expanded in the final month. He played a career-high 39 games in 2002, but only because Giles and DeRosa were injured.
Garcia was viewed as valuable insurance to have around, but little more than a Triple-A player. His career average in the majors was .197 entering this season. He spent most of the past six years at the top rung of the minors. He couldn't seem to shake that dreaded label: journeyman.
"I don't think you ever really break it, to be honest with you," DeRosa said.
Fortunately for Garcia, he was versatile. He showed he could play second, short, third and the outfield, which kept him around longer than many of his ilk.
Along the way, Garcia kept working on his offense, hitting a career-high .306 at Richmond last season.
For once, his timing was right. The Braves were in cost-cutting mode and decided to give DeRosa, their main infield backup the last three years, a chance to start. That opened up a spot for Garcia.
"Because his defensive skills were so special and because of his versatility, he got more time," Wren said. "The longer he played, the better he got."
Not that Garcia is taking anything for granted.
"Even if I go 0-for-4," he said, "I'm going to be hustling down the line four times."
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