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Profile: Sean Gamble

The Phillies reached into their past for their sixth round pick in the 2004 Draft. Auburn's Sean Gamble, the son of former Phillie Oscar Gamble, was drafted by the Phillies. Oscar Gamble played with the Phillies from 1970-1972 and the Phillies hope his son will be with them before too long and stick around longer than Dad did. <i>The following article was originally published in "Inside the Auburn Tigers" in April, 2003.</i>

Although he won't leave his teen-age years until June 23 when he celebrates his 20th birthday, Sean Gamble has become a mainstay in leftfield for the Auburn baseball team. Many believe that as he matures physically, Gamble will elevate his game and professional baseball potential to an even higher level.

Two years ago, Gamble had a decision to make. He had been selected out of Montgomery's Jeff Davis High School by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball draft after having signed a baseball scholarship with Coach Steve Renfroe's Auburn Tigers.

Would it be college or professional baseball?

Who better for Sean Oscar Gamble to turn to for advice than his own father, Oscar Gamble, a veteran of 17 Major League seasons when he retired in 1985. Before he was 20, Oscar Gamble had already made his Major League debut in 1969 with the Chicago Cubs. "It was different back when I was coming up," says Gamble, a power-hitter from the left side who caught the eyes of big league scouts out of Ramer High School, located only a few minutes from Montgomery. "I didn't have the options that Sean had with a choice of a strong SEC for college baseball or signing a pro contract."

Sean says he's fortunate that his dad, who was known across the country for his large Afro haircut during his big-league career, hasn¹t put a lot of pressure on him to play baseball and follow in his footsteps. "He's sort of laid back when it comes to pushing me in baseball," Sean points out. "In fact, he¹s also that way with my brothers and sisters. He wants us to pursue things that we enjoy. He and my mother (Juanita) left my decision about college or pro baseball up to me."

For Gamble, baseball is a passion that he shares with his dad, who operates a sports agent business based out of Montgomery. Auburn's Renfroe is thankful that Gamble decided to play for Auburn rather than signing with the Blue Jays. "We were fortunate because Sean was a kid who liked Auburn," Renfroe recalls. "He's a great kid, a bright kid who knows baseball. He has a lot of fun playing the game and has a fearless attitude. He has a lot of confidence and wants to be at the plate. You feel good because he believes in himself. It carries over to the other guys."

That was never more evident than in Auburn's opening game of the 2003 season. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs against Virginia Commonwealth, Gamble came to the plate thinking long ball. "I made up my mind to swing hard," Gamble recalls. "I wasn't going to have a half swing into a weak grounder. Coach Renfroe told me to that it was fastball situation and not to take a strike if it I saw a pitch I could drive."

The first pitch was a fastball that stayed outside. Gamble was waiting on the second pitch, another fastball that tailed back over the plate, and drove it deep to right field. "I thought it was out when I first hit it, but the rightfielder pounded his glove like he was going to make a catch up against the wall. When he turned his head and looked at the ball, I rounded first base and gave it my Kirk Gibson trot," Gamble says with a smile. That trot included pumping his arm like Gibson during his World Series heroics as a Los Angeles Dodger.

That one at bat that produced a come-from-behind victory seems to have set a standard that has the Tigers believing in themselves when down early or late in the game this season. They have overcome several large deficits and used a five-run ninth inning against North Carolina for another one-run victory. "That was a big-time blow when we needed it," Renfroe says. "That's just the the kind of kid he is. I think he¹s going to be a big-time player and really he already has been. He¹s a great find for us."

A year ago Gamble might not have been able to crank it up for the walk-off homer, the first game-ending blast of his career dating back to youth league baseball. Renfroe and Gamble agree that this past summer was well spent for the young leftfielder. Gamble stayed in Auburn in order to put on weight and work on his throwing and baserunning. After hitting .499 with 14 doubles, 15 triples and 20 home runs in his three years as a starter for Jeff Davis High in Montgomery, Gamble came to Auburn as a six-foot, 164-pounder. Gamble knew he needed to get stronger and made it happen, entering his sophomore season at 188 pounds. He¹s stronger at the plate, has built up his arm with constant long-tossing exercises and has learned to use his speed on the basepaths and the field much better by working on his technique. As freshman Gamble compiled a respectable .276 batting average in 58 games, including 49 starts. He came on strong down the stretch, hitting safely in 19 of Auburn¹s final 20 games. Gamble was five-of-six at the plate during the Southeastern Conference Tournament. He followed that with a grand slam homer and five runs batted in to tie an Auburn record for an NCAA Regional game. The mark tied by Gamble against Florida Atlantic is shared with two-time American League Most Valuable player Frank Thomas, who had five RBI for Auburn during the 1987 NCAA Regional.

"He was a heck of a player during final month of last season," Renfroe notes. "He played great and I look for that out of Sean again this year." Gamble has an explanation for what happened his freshman year when he went 27 straight at bats without a hit before his strong finish. "I didn't realize how long the season was. By the middle of the season I was physically burned out. I had never lifted weights very much and it caught up with me. I had a lot of adrenaline for Friday games, but by Sunday games it was tough. Some days I didn¹t think I was going to be able to get out of bed to practice."

Gamble believes he played better at the end of the season for a couple of reasons­he began to understand the coaches¹ philosophy and retained his confidence.

"I'm real confident anyway, but not cocky," he says. "Everybody on the team knows that. I was hitting the ball good at the beginning of my slump, but it was right at someone. Then I started trying to change my swing because I thought I was doing something wrong. Sometimes, the ball just doesn¹t bounce your way. It bounced my way at the end of the season."

Gamble's numbers are up significantly this season and his good work at the plate helped the Tigers break into the Top 10 in the national rankings in March. Hitting out of the second spot after spending most of his freshman year leading off, the outfielder has been very productive. "I think in our lineup Sean is best suited hitting second," Renfroe points out. "He's got excellent speed and has really improved his bunting."

Gamble says a preseason injury has made him a better bunter. "I really didn't have that weapon (bunting) last year," he admits. "I sprained my wrist in preseason practice and couldn¹t swing the bat for about 10 days. We had intrasquad games every day. I got four or five bats each game and all I could do was bunt. Some days I was getting on base two or three times when everybody knew I was going to bunt. I try to get at least one hit bunting in a series, or more if the third baseman is playing back."

Not only has Gamble improved at the plate, his defense has come a long way. Because his arm is not as strong as those of junior Javon Moran in center field or freshman Clete Thomas in right, Gamble handles left field where shorter throws are required. Chris Finwood, Auburn¹s assistant coach who handles the defense, expects Gamble to remain in left field next year if Moran signs a pro contract and doesn¹t return for his senior year. "Sean has turned out to be a good leftfielder," Finwood says about Gamble, who has to deal with a short fence with a towering wall fashioned after Fenway Park in Boston. "He's learned to play the wall, throwing out runners at second base and holding others to singles. There¹s a knack to that. You get a guy who can play out there three or four years and you don¹t have to teach someone else how to play the wall. That¹s a real advantage."

For Gamble and a couple of other Auburn players­pitcher Colby Paxton and second baseman Tug Hulett­whose fathers played professorial baseball, the spotlight is sometimes a little brighter because of their backgrounds. "My dad retired when I was only two years old, so I didn¹t get to follow his career," says Gamble who was born in 1983. "I do have a picture of me at a birthday party at old Comiskey Park when my dad was with the White Sox." Oscar played for seven Major League teams­the Cubs, Phillies, Indians, Yankees, Padres, White Sox and Rangers. He had a couple of noteworthy accomplishments while spending most of his career as a platoon outfielder who belted 200 home runs in 4,500 career at bats.

He had the last hit and run batted in at Philadelphia¹s storied Connie Mack Stadium in the early 1970s. In 1976, Gamble helped lead the Yankees to their first pennant in 12 years with 17 homers and 57 RBI in 340 at bats for manager Billy Martin in what was commonly known as the "Bronx Zoo." In 1979, Gamble returned to the Yankees to lead them to another pennant after spending much of the season with Texas. He batted .389 with 11 homers and 32 RBI in 36 games for the Yankees that season. His overall average for Texas and New York was a league-best .358, but with only 274 at bats he didn¹t qualify for the batting title. "I gave myself a batting title in my mind," Gamble jokingly says.

Juanita Gamble, Sean¹s mother, also got into the act at Yankee Stadium. She sang the national anthem several times prior to Yankee games, including once prior to a playoff game. Oscar says he was most nervous when his wife sang, hoping she wouldn¹t make a mistake. It has been reported that the Yankee front office had Juanita in tears when Oscar was forced to cut off his trademark Afro.

Sean¹s dad is a fixture at Yankee Old-Timer games and is involved with Fantasy Baseball Camps in Tampa, Fla. While Oscar didn't play when the really big salaries were paid, he did sign a contract for $1 million a year with the Padres in 1978 as one of the top free agents on the market at the time. Because of his dad's background, Sean has been able to meet several well-known current Major League players and former players.

While with the Yankees, Oscar platooned with Lou Piniella, who was managing the Cincinnati Reds years later. When the Reds were in Atlanta to play the Braves, Sean visited the Reds' dressing room with his dad. Sean has also been in Yankee dressing rooms. "The most famous player I've met is probably Derek Jeter (Yankee shortstop)," Sean says. "Last year we went to a Braves-Giants' game. My dad is friends with Dusty Baker (Giants manager at the time who is now with the Cubs). The game got delayed in the ninth inning and we never got down to the clubhouse. I wanted to meet Barry Bonds. Maybe I¹ll have another chance."

At one time, Gamble had a glove autographed and sent to him by Ken Griffey Jr., whose father, Ken Griffey Sr., was a teammate of Oscar Gamble's on the Yankees. "Someone stole the glove," Gamble says with regret. While growing up in Montgomery, Gamble played in the AUM Dixie Youth, Dixie Boys and Dixie Majors program. He also had time to play the piano, saxophone and guitar. He gave up the musical instruments, and basketball, when he reached high school to concentrate on baseball. "My mom made all my concerts and ball games through the years. I can even hear her in the stands at Auburn." Gamble played on an AUM Dixie Majors team that placed third in that organization's World Series. For three years following all-star play, Gamble participated in Reviving Baseball Intercities (RBI). The program is sponsored by Major League Baseball with players recommended for the RBI team which played against championship all-star squads. Gamble played at the Braves' spring training facility in Orlando, Fla., as well as Cooperstown, N.Y., and Joplin, Mo.

While at Cooperstown when he was 17, Gamble was in the same dorm with his future teammate Moran, who was representing a team from Georgia and had already signed with Auburn. Also while visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, Gamble saw an item that featured his dad's famous Afro. Gamble also met several players in Missouri who had been drafted out of high school a couple of weeks earlier who were also deciding between college and pro baseball. "I weighed all the pros and cons," Gamble says. "I thought college would be best so I could mature and work on some things lacking in my game."

After deciding to go the college route, Auburn was a quick choice for Gamble, who has one sister who has graduated from the University of Alabama and another in school at Alabama. "Most everybody in my family are Alabama fans, especially football, but I was the one who pulled against Alabama no matter who they played," Gamble relates. "Most of my family pulls for us in baseball, but still lean towards Alabama in football. My dad is more of a frontrunner, so he pulls for which ever team is winning between Auburn and Alabama."

When Renfroe and Finwood offered Gamble a scholarship to play baseball for Auburn, he was on board. "I liked Auburn already. There were also two openings in the outfield and it¹s only about 40 minutes from home. It was an easy decision."

Pro baseball is likely in Gamble's future and he knows that dreams can come true. "My dad came from a small town and made it to the big leagues," Gamble says. "That gives me confidence that I can do the same. My whole family played baseball so I kind of want to make it for my own personal reasons, not just because he played."

Gamble doesn't let the pressure of being a former Major League player's son bother him. "I'm proud of my dad and what he did in baseball," Gamble says. "When I was younger some people might have thought the only reason I was good is because of my dad. But there's never really been any pressure because it's never been any other way for me. Oscar Gamble has always been my dad, and I've always had to play with people knowing that."

Sean Gamble is creating his own niche as a solid contributor to the Auburn baseball program, earning respect as he goes and not just because of who his father is.

For more information on Sean Gamble and the Auburn Tigers, visit autigers.com.

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