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Oliver pushes away plate in hopes of playing behind it

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Baseball was a weight-and-see proposition to Joe Oliver last season. He put on too much weight, and he could see what it was doing to his once-bright career.

After 10 years in the big leagues, Oliver, 33, appeared to be done. It wasn't a slow bat or a hyperextended elbow that did him in but an overactive fork. If he didn't get the hint last season, when he was released by Detroit and relegated to minimal duty by Seattle, the message came through loud and clear during the winter -- when there was no buzz from teams inquiring about his services.

"When I didn't get the phone calls, and when I'd hear that when GMs would talk they were worried about my weight, that definitely sent me a message. I had to make a change," Oliver said.

What was once 220 pounds carried on his 6-foot-3 frame expanded past 250, and his playing time -- and his batting average -- went the other way. Not unlike a lot of Americans, he found himself fat, lazy and unhappy in his job.

"Last year I let it get out of control," said Oliver, who hit .225 with six home runs and 32 RBI in 79 games last season.

"It was kind of my self pity. I was in denial; I wasn't looking at myself in the mirror. There comes a point in time when you're struggling that you have to do extra work and you have to decide, "Am I working hard enough? What do I need to do to improve myself?' That's what this winter was all about."

Oliver, in essence, decided to just say no. "I pushed away from the table," Oliver said. "I spent a lot of time in the weight room, a lot of time on the treadmill and a lot of time jogging the streets of Orlando."

He dropped about 20 pounds without sacrificing any strength, and has been impressive since arriving early to camp. Oliver signed a minor-league contract but seems to have the big leagues again in his sights, hitting .364 with two home runs and playing well behind the plate.

"He's done great," said manager Larry Rothschild, who was a coach in Cincinnati when Oliver played there. "He's lost a lot of weight since last year, he's really swung the bat well, he does a nice job receiving, he knows the league and the pitchers, and he knows how to handle a pitching staff. There's a lot in place with Joe.

"He's kind of come in here and revitalized his career, I think."

In the process, Oliver may also force the Rays into an interesting, if not difficult, decision. They plan to keep two catchers, and returnees John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice also have played well. Barring injury, someone will have to go.

"I want to make the club -- that's my goal," Oliver said. "That's all I can control right now, coming in and doing what I've done so far and continuing to do that throughout the spring. I can't make the decision for Chuck (LaMar, GM) or Larry, but I know I'm making an impact on their decision.

"If it doesn't work out here I feel like I can go somewhere else. There's got to be some other scouts and other GMs who've got to be impressed with the way I've come in. But I would love to be here. I want to be here.

"I'm a Floridian and I wanted to be here last year, but things didn't work out. I'm kind of glad I'm here now instead of in last year's frame of mind. I might have eaten my way out of Tampa Bay, too."

Instead, he turned up as a lean, mean fighting-for-a-job machine.

The biggest difference? "He's not fat anymore," former and present teammate Norm Charlton said. "Anybody who knows Joe can see that he's worked hard and slimmed down. I just don't think he was ready to stop playing."

Oliver said as much, that he wasn't ready to leave the game, figuring he would miss the camaraderie as much as the competition.

"I realized my career was in jeopardy here," he said. "If I came into camp overweight and lackadaisical, I was out of here. And it wasn't just going to be out of here, it could have been out of baseball.

"I had to come in and rededicate myself and decide I was going to work hard. And not just in spring training, but through the whole year."

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