2007 Aurilia pain the neck for Rich
Fans soured on veteran infielder who struggled to recapture old Giants magic
By Andrew Baggarly, MEDIANEWS STAFF

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — During a question-and-answer session at FanFest earlier this month, someone asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy about his plans for third base. Bochy mentioned Rich Aurilia. Groans followed. A few boos, too.

For Aurilia? The only player remaining from the 2002 World Series team? The guy who hit six home runs that postseason? A fan favorite during the prime of the Giants' renaissance years?

"I don't see how you can boo Rich Aurilia," Giants outfielder Randy Winn said. "He played so many years on so many good teams here. Maybe they were unhappy the team didn't sign Alex (Rodriguez) or something like that."

Or maybe they are ready to move beyond the Barry Bonds era and would rather see a prospect than take a nostalgia trip. Either way, Aurilia's contract expires after this season, and another difficult year would turn his happy homecoming into an awkward exit.

Aurilia is optimistic, saying his injured neck has recovered and he is determined to start on opening day.

"You want all the younger guys to do well and be professional as they go about their business and that's something I can offer to those guys," Aurilia said. "But you know what? I want to go out and play. And I want to win. And I'm going to do everything I can to accomplish both those things. Regardless of who the fans want to play third, I'm just going to do my job and help this team." All of Aurilia's accomplishments with the Giants — seven opening-day starts, the banner 37-homer/206-hit season in 2001, helping four clubs reach the playoffs — didn't make last season's numbers any glossier. Amid two stints on the disabled list, he hit .252 with five home runs in 99 games.

Aurilia said he understands if fans believe he's not the same player. He didn't recognize himself last year, either. He hit .339 over his first 16 games before his neck stiffened up and remained that way for the rest of the season. Eventually, Aurilia realized the problem: a car accident in spring training, when he was rear-ended on the way to Scottsdale Stadium.

"It didn't bother me for two months, but I talked to several people who say necks can be funny like that," Aurilia said.

"All I know is sleeping wrong shouldn't make you feel like that. I was miserable from May on. My mood at home was miserable. I wasn't the same person."

How did the injury affect his hitting?

"Well, for starters, I couldn't turn my head to face the pitcher," he said. "It threw everything off from there. ... But I take responsibility for my performance. I was out there playing. Whether I was 100 percent or not, I could have said, 'I can't play.' That was my choice."

Aurilia had two rounds of cortisone injections that brought temporary relief. But the pain didn't go away until this winter, through rest and work with a physical therapist.
Now, in the final year of his contract, he is pain-free and hopes to be the player who hit .300 with 23 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006.

"There's no question we need him," Bochy said. "We need his bat, we need his glove at third, and he'll play a big part in our season."

While the Giants don't have an everyday third base prospect to push Aurilia, there's a good chance they will trade for White Sox third baseman Joe Crede. In that event, they'll still need Aurilia to back up at all four infield positions and be a safety net in case Daniel Ortmeier flops at first base.

Aurilia understands if some fans consider him a favorite VHS highlight tape in a Blu-Ray world.

"If they get another third baseman, they can cheer him," Aurilia said. "It doesn't change the way I go about my job. I play hard every day like I've always done. Fans have that right to cheer or boo whomever they want. I've come off a bad year and proven people wrong before. I'm looking for the opportunity to do that again."

And, hopefully, be a fan favorite.