Rangers allow Gagne to train at his own pace

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- During his two-year odyssey of surgery and despair, Eric Gagne missed out on dozens of save opportunities. He lost far too much sleep worrying, and sacrificed too many innings to the lonely grind of rehabilitation.

Fortunately, optimism is a renewable resource. When Gagne returns to closing games for the Texas Rangers this season, he will walk out of the bullpen to the accompaniment of his old theme song, "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses. He will continue to sport that unruly patch of mesquite on his chin, and stare at hitters through goggles better suited to industrial arts class than the big leagues.

"I have kids, so when I get on the mound I see someone else trying to steal my job and make my life hell. So I try to do the same thing to them."
-- Eric Gagne

The eyewear is more functional than a fashion statement. "My vision is horrible," Gagne said. And you don't expect a closer to get the job done wearing Dom DiMaggio glasses, do you?

The folks in Texas' camp who admired Gagne when he was converting 84 straight save chances in Los Angeles can testify that his aura is intact. Until the Rangers get a firmer grasp of what Gagne can be, they're content to think of him as he once was.

"He's a great guy off the field," said Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira. "But once he gets on that mound, he looks as if he wants to rip your head off."

Barely a week into Rangers camp, Gagne is acting more like a chamber of commerce representative than a bouncer at a biker bar. He's quick to sign autographs, fulfill interview requests, and bring some pleasant memories to snowbirds in the desert.

When an elderly couple from Canada recently showed up at Surprise Stadium and the wife greeted Gagne in his native French, Gagne was so touched that he parlez-voused with the woman all the way across the complex.

Gagne is making plans to treat the entire Rangers bullpen to dinner, and he has informed pitching coach Mark Connor that he's prepared to pitch in blowouts when the other Texas relievers are too tired to go.

It remains to be seen when the growling, snorting, grunting, sweating, hyper-competitive Eric Gagne will appear. He's always just a save opportunity away.

"It's pretty simple," Gagne said. "I have kids, so when I get on the mound I see someone else trying to steal my job and make my life hell. So I try to do the same thing to them. I'm not saying I'm crazy. I'm just very aggressive and passionate about what I do."

At age 31, Gagne speaks with the perspective of a man who has traveled multiple journeys. The Rand McNally version carried him from his native Montreal to Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma to a spot in the Dodgers' system as a 19-year-old free agent in 1995. Gagne survived Tommy John surgery two years later, and was stuck on a nondescript career track as a starter before finding his niche in the ninth inning.

During an incredible three-year run from 2002 through 2004, Gagne averaged 13.3 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine innings, converted 152 of 158 saves, and finished fourth, first and seventh in the Cy Young Award balloting. Let's put it this way: He sure made people forget fellow Quebec natives Claude Raymond and Denis Boucher.

Then came his trip to hell and back, with two elbow operations and back surgery in a span of 13 months. In an age where suspicion reigns, his fragility led to whispers that he might have dabbled in steroids. Gagne, who denies that he's done anything of the sort, characterizes himself as a victim of the times.

"It surprised me [to hear that]," he said. "I guess everybody is a target now. It's a shame that it came down to that."

Gagne might have to reinvent himself -- or at least, tinker around the edges -- if he wants to remain a dominant closer. The "old" Eric Gagne dazzled hitters with a 98 mph fastball while displaying a genuine feel for pitching. When he located his curveball at 65 mph or dropped a changeup on the black, it was flat-out unfair.

Maybe it's a stretch to say that Gagne had a larger-than-life presence in those days. For sure, he had enough cachet to fill a television screen.

"When you watch him on TV, you think he's 6-6 and 270 pounds," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. Gagne is listed as standing 6 feet even and weighing 243 pounds.

After paying Gagne $18 million to pitch 15 1/3 innings over two seasons, the Dodgers bought out his 2007 option for $1 million in November. Boston and Cleveland jumped in the fray, but the Rangers won the race for two reasons: (1) They were willing to commit to Gagne as a closer even though incumbent Akinori Otsuka saved 32 games and yielded only three homers in 59 2/3 innings, and (2) they gave Gagne a guaranteed $6 million, with a chance to earn an additional $5 million in incentives.

The Rangers are giving Gagne the latitude to train at his own pace -- to read the signs his body sends and back off rather than push things too quickly and incur a setback. Gagne isn't scheduled to pitch in the team's first four Cactus League games, and it's uncertain when he will make his debut.

Over the winter, Gagne concentrated on "core" training rather than heavy lifting at the Arizona facility run by former Cubs physical therapist Brett Fischer. He is also paying former Los Angeles trainer Todd Clausen, his best friend, to accompany him on the road this season as his personal trainer. The arrangement has the Rangers' blessing.

A healthy Gagne should upgrade a Texas bullpen that ranked fourth in the American League with a 3.74 ERA, but only 10th with a save conversion rate of 65 percent. The Rangers plan to begin the year with seven relievers, and here's the projected breakdown: Gagne closing, Otsuka working the eighth, C.J. Wilson and Ron Mahay from the left side, young Wes Littleton in middle relief, and two more from a group that includes Frankie Francisco, Joaquin Benoit, Rick Bauer, Scott Feldman and others.

New manager Ron Washington admits he has no idea whether Gagne will come back with significantly less velocity and be a different pitcher than the old power guy.

"I do believe that with the courage and the bulldog mentality he has, he'll do whatever it takes to get it done," Washington said.

When Gagne experiences the old spring soreness, it serves a dual purpose. On one hand, he recalls how much he missed baseball when he lost it so abruptly. At the same time, each twinge and ache reminds him that his future might be tenuous.

"Sometimes when you're sore you think, 'Oh my god, not again,' " Gagne said. "I love the game so much, I don't want it to be taken away because I'm hurt. It's always in the back of my head, but you can't step on the mound scared."

Gagne has been scared, frustrated, bored and just about everything in between for the past two seasons. Now payback time is approaching for American League hitters. He's pleased to welcome them back to the jungle.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.