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Alligator-wrestling rookie amazing, Marlin mates say

MIAMI -- Bruce Aven is a short, bald, alligator-wrestling 27-year-old rookie part-time outfielder for the National League's worst team.

Teammates call him Gator. They also call him amazing."He keeps coming through with clutch hits, even though he doesn't play every day," pitcher Alex Fernandez said. "That's tough to do, but he's been doing it all year."

Aven's seasonlong hit parade included a 4-for-5 performance Sunday with two home runs and four RBIs to help Fernandez and the Florida Marlins beat the New York Yankees 8-2.

That lifted Aven's batting average to .375 with 33 RBIs, the most of any NL rookie, and seven homers. He has compiled the gaudy statistics in just 104 at-bats, a ratio that would produce 159 RBIs in 500 at-bats.

So naturally when reporters clustered around Aven's locker after the game, they wanted to ask him about alligator wrestling. The story of his visit this spring to Gatorland, a wildlife park near Orlando, becomes ever more popular with the media as his hit total rises.

"I've been fascinated with crocodiles and alligators," he said in his native Texas twang. "I learned so much about them that when I came to spring training, I wanted to go behind the scenes at Gatorland.

"I ended up getting on an 8-foot alligator. He was 145 pounds, and I'm 200, but when I was on his back, he dragged me a foot and a half before I could stop him.

"I had a good time doing it, but I'm not going to go around pulling alligators out of golf ponds or make my own alligator boots."

Aven's path to the Marlins is also strange but true. He was drafted in the 30th round in 1994 by the Cleveland Indians, and because they had an abundance of outfielders, he spent just 13 games in the major leagues before a career-threatening elbow injury sidelined him last year.

In June 1998 Aven underwent Tommy John surgery, which involved a ligament transplant, and he spent the next six months waiting to regain the use of two fingers on his right hand.

"I missed nearly the whole season," he said. "I know what it's like to sit at home and watch TV. It was an angry feeling."

The Indians placed Aven on waivers, and the Marlins claimed him. When he reported to spring training in February, he wasn't even on the 40-man roster and just hoped to win a place in the organization.

"I didn't know anything about him," manager John Boles said. "Whenever you get a guy off waivers, you say, 'What are the possibilities of this working out?' "

But base hits immediately began to fly off Aven's bat, and they haven't stopped yet. He led the team in spring training with 20 hits and won a roster spot as the fifth outfielder. Three weeks into the season he was hitting .529, and by May 7 he had set a Marlins season record with nine pinch-hit RBIs, including a grand slam.

When center fielder Todd Dunwoody was demoted to Triple-A, Aven's role expanded. Florida began this week 12-8 when he starts and 12-31 when he doesn't.

To Aven, being one of baseball's hottest rookies is like straddling an alligator: Might as well enjoy the ride.