The San Francisco Giants' leading run producer is no Aubrey-come-lately when he has a song in his heart and some tender lyrics on his mind.
Aubrey Huff was attending a friend's wedding a few years ago when the karaoke machine cranked up and he wowed the assembled guests with his rendition of George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning." One thing led to another, and, in 2005, Huff recorded a track alongside Omar Vizquel, Coco Crisp and several other major leaguers on a baseball CD titled "Oh Say Can You Sing."
If Huff's fellow Giants had been unacquainted with his golden pipes, they became aware at Jake Peavy's "Woodjock" benefit concert in Scottsdale, Ariz., in March. Between appearances by Bernie Williams and Bronson Arroyo, Huff took the stage in skintight jeans, a T-shirt and a pair of cowboy boots. With a man-sized gold chain around his neck and a cold beverage in hand, he treated the audience to a couple of pelvic thrusts and a passable interpretation of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."
"Aubrey has a good cigarette, lounge, deep-voiced, country, Clint Black thing going," said Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand, who attended the concert. "He can do Johnny Cash. But anything higher than that -- forget it."
On the list of Huff's non-baseball tools, singing is only one form of expression. When he opens his mouth to speak, the entertainment portion of the program really begins.
The landscape is full of professional athletes who dispense sanitized quotes and try to avoid generating a reaction at all costs. Huff, 33, is pathologically incapable of taking that route. Baltimore Orioles fans reached that conclusion after Huff's infamous radio interview with "Bubba the Love Sponge" in 2007, when he put Baltimore in a snit by calling it a "horse[bleep] town" -- while he was playing for the Orioles.
Huff eventually earned his way back into the city's good graces, but only after apologizing, leading the American League in extra-base hits in 2008 and celebrating a home run off Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain with an exaggerated, mock-Joba fist pump.
"My mouth gets me in trouble a lot, there's no doubt about it." Huff said. "But I say what I feel. I'm not going to talk behind your back. It's coming right at you."
As history shows, it's a little easier for a man to get away with digging himself a verbal hole when he has his bat to dig himself out.
The Giants are suddenly six games behind the San Diego Padres in the National League West after a recent rough patch, but they're still in the thick of the wild-card race. Huff, who has spent most of this season batting third or fourth in manager Bruce Bochy's lineup, is a big reason why. He leads San Francisco in homers (20), RBIs (68), runs (76), walks (61), games played (118) and hits (125). Even after a recent slide that prompted Bochy to rest him Thursday night against the Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels, Huff is hitting .292 with a .900 OPS.
"I'd take 10 of him," said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. "Good or bad, he doesn't let one at-bat roll over into the next one. That's what you like to see. Aubrey and [Juan] Uribe and [Andres] Torres -- they've really been the core of our offense. They've been pretty consistent all year."
That's a surprising development, given that Huff's baseball career was sucking wind at Christmas time. He was coming off one of his worst career seasons, spring training was about a month away, and he didn't have a sniff, a prayer or a semblance of a job on the horizon.
When the Giants called in early January with a $3 million offer -- a more than 60 percent cut from his $8 million salary in 2009 -- Huff had little choice but to accept. Adam LaRoche, Rick Ankiel, Johnny Damon and Jim Thome were among the other veteran hitters trolling for jobs, and the potential upside of waiting carried the risk of getting stuck with a minor league deal. Or, worse yet, no deal at all.
"It seems like they're trying to root out the older guys now," Huff said. "Everybody is going, younger, younger, younger. Hell, I'm 33 years old, and everybody was talking about me like I'm a fossil.
"I contemplated being retired. I told myself, 'If I wind up signing with another losing team, I could very easily see myself walking away. Screw it."'
Huff has come far enough in life, and survived enough emotional trauma and personal adversity, to realize there are a lot worse things than playing for a salary in the low seven figures in a ballpark with pitcher-friendly gaps.
Huff was 6 years old when his father, an electrician, was shot and killed in 1983 while trying to intervene in a domestic dispute at an apartment complex in Abilene, Texas. Huff's mother, Fonda, raised Aubrey and his sister in a trailer park near Fort Worth. In various newspaper profiles, Huff has been described as "a gangly, pizza-faced" kid, "painfully shy" and a "redneck." Many of the descriptions are self-administered, and true to form for a man who wears his ordinariness like a badge of honor.
Huff came out of his shell at the University of Miami, where he played with current San Francisco teammate Pat Burrell. The Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the fifth round of the 1998 draft, and Huff was in the majors two years later.
With the exception of stretch-drive cameos with the Houston Astros in 2006 and the
Detroit Tigers last season, Huff grew accustomed to playing for sub-.500 teams in Tampa Bay and Baltimore. He developed a reputation as a player whose commitment didn't always measure up to his ability, and it was easy to get dragged down by all the losing. In his typically forthright style, Huff acknowledges that playing for a team with a winning tradition and high expectations in San Francisco has brought out the best in him.
"The organization here is A-plus," he said. "I never really realized how the big leagues were supposed to be until I got here."
Huff arrived at a Giants conditioning camp in Phoenix in January in terrific shape, and he spent 15-20 extra minutes on the back field each day of spring training polishing his defense at first base with the help of bench coach Ron Wotus. He can come across as brash, abrasive, juvenile or crude with his sense of humor in the clubhouse, but his fellow Giants have taken to him just fine. Huff loves the dynamic in San Francisco, and he and his wife, Baubi, have become huge fans of the Bay Area.
"It's such a cool culture," Huff said. "I've played on the East Coast my whole life, and I got quite fed up with it, to be honest with you. There are only so many New Yorks and Bostons you can do. Everywhere you go in New York, it seems like there's constant jackhammering and horn honking and people are miserable. On the West Coast, people are happy. There's just a different feel in the way everybody walks around."
[Huff] deserves every right to be considered as a player we'd like to bring back. He's shown us he can play first, left and right. As long as he's in the lineup hitting every day -- against righties and lefties -- he's happy.
”-- Giants GM Brian Sabean about Huff
Hey, since Huff already ticked off Baltimore, he might as well move on to the rest of the AL East, right?
Will his tenure in San Francisco be more than a one-year arrangement? The signs are good. Huff wants to return, and management seems favorably inclined toward re-signing him.
Once the season ends, general manager Brian Sabean's first order of business will be to determine how the pieces fit. Mark DeRosa will return from wrist surgery in 2011, and he could slot in at third base and prompt the Giants to move Pablo Sandoval across the diamond to first. Rowand still has two years and $24 million left on his contract; Torres and Nate Schierholtz are very affordable outfield pieces; and Burrell has made a strong case for himself with 12 homers and a .549 slugging percentage since the Giants rescued him from oblivion in June. So there's some creative strategizing to be done.
Huff, long considered a below-average defender, has been much better in the field than his reputation suggested. With his aptitude for moving around, he gives the team some flexibility in its decision-making.
"He's done his part," Sabean said. "He deserves every right to be considered as a player we'd like to bring back. He's shown us he can play first, left and right. As long as he's in the lineup hitting every day -- against righties and lefties -- he's happy."
Seven months ago, the Giants helped revive Huff's career with a phone call. He is doing all he can to return the favor.