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Brown says he's healthy, happy

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March 8

JUPITER, Fla. -- We are still a week from the Ides of March, when the focus turns from phenoms and other strangers to the season at hand. So our eyes are still often focused on the futures, like right-hand pitcher Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers, shortstop Jose Reyes of the Mets, right-hander Rich Harden of Oakland, second baseman/shortstop Brandon Phillips of the Indians and Mark Teixeira of the Rangers.

But more important, in the short-term, are the star players coming back from serious injuries. So it's interesting to read daily scouting reports that report Frank Thomas "is playing really hard," and that Junior Griffey, as expected, has taken the mission of his return to prominence and begun daily launchings.

Comeback Stop No. 1
Vero Beach, Fla.
Kevin Brown

"His stuff right now is absolutely good enough to win and win big," says Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca. "He's up to 92 (mph) with incredible movement. His curveball is better than it ever was. He will win. Of course, he's not happy."

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown won only three games for the Dodgers in 2002.

Brown is 38 and coming off two seasons that ended with elbow and back surgery, and yet he is impatiently trying to get himself back to the 95-97 mph range that once made him one of the great pitchers in the game. His teammates and manager remember a game in September 2001 when, with his elbow blown out, he threw five scoreless innings against the Padres to keep the Dodgers in the pennant race.

"It was one of the most remarkable, brave performances I've ever seen," says manager Jim Tracy.

"It was," says Lo Duca, "unbelievable."

"My teammates needed me to get some innings," says Brown. "I couldn't have looked them in the eye if I hadn't gone out there."

Brown maintains that the elbow would have been fine last year, but all those years of throwing created such an imbalance in his back that it finally went.

"Honestly, I probably would not be where I'm at today if I had not played with years and years of pain," says Brown. "Looking back, I can see the progression. I can see how things may have unfolded. But at that point in time, when you can get on the mound and you can get somebody out, it's kinda hard to say 'Yeah I'm hurting so I'm not gonna do that right now. I'm gonna take a break. I'm not gonna go out there and do what I can to help the team.'

"Obviously if I had known back then what I know now, I could've taken a little different road. I could've avoided having some of the problems I've had.

"I guess just about every guy has to feel like he's got some little bit of invulnerability. You can deflect these things that are thrown at you over the years and you can beat them. That has been one of the difficult things, especially what happened last year. I really felt like there was a chink in my armor -- I couldn't get out there, and to watch this team for the second year in a row be so close to the playoffs and be on the sidelines watching, not really being able to contribute and do anything to help. That was new territory for me and I hope it's something I never have to go through again."

Brown said he had no choice but to shut things down.

"The back was pretty bad even though I was throwing the ball pretty well early on. It kinda came to a head, it just all of a sudden went right over the edge right off the cliff. I woke up one morning and when I went to get out of bed, I could barely make it out. So it was a sudden onset but I got a feeling it was probably years and years [in the making] after listening to what the doctors had to say."

In the offseason, Brown began walking, learned the causes of back trauma and slowly began his rehab program. "The question is whether it translates onto the field. I probably feel better than I've felt in a long time. The question is whether or not God has in his plan for me to be back as good as I was. If not, I'll do everything I can and try and help the team with what I have to offer."

The Dodgers believe that Brown will make it back. They are also very encouraged by Darren Dreifort's early showings.

"The big question is how my knee (and shoulder) holds up over the season," says Dreifort. "But right now everything is going right." As it is for Kaz Ishii, who showed no ill effects from last year's line drive to the face in his first start. The good thing for the Dodgers is that they have six starters, and can back off Brown, Dreifort or Ishii if necessary.

"If we have Brown and Dreifort healthy," says GM Dan Evans, "we're pretty interesting."

Comeback Stop No. 2
Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Mo Vaughn

The Hit Dog played 1999 with a torn ankle and missed the entire 2001 season with a ruptured bicep tendon. So, when he went through his miserable, 10-homer first half with the Mets last season, he admits that "I really wondered if my time was done. But the second half got a lot better. I dedicated myself to being in the best shape of my career, and this spring I feel like I used to."

Mo Vaughn
Mo Vaughn hit only .259 last season, but had 20 homers in the second half.

Vaughn came into spring training in top shape after working out all winter. "I did a lot of speed work, a lot of plyometrics," says the 35-year old first baseman. "I did a lot of dynamics work for acceleration, because that's what you need in this game. I needed to get the explosion ready.

"Then I had to get my swing straightened out. When I had my best years (averaging .320, 40 HR, 120 RBI 1995-98 in Boston), I stayed back, stayed inside the ball and drove it to center and left. I got hurt, then I got away from that. Look, I can hit the ball out of any park, to any field if I set up right and swing right. But my setup wasn't good. I wasn't seeing the ball, and I wasn't getting to balls inside on me. I really feel as if I'm back."

"He's really worked on that setup and approach and he's done well at it," says bench coach Don Baylor. "Now the one thing I'd like to see is getting back the old Mo. When I knew him in the American League, he was one of the most charismatic players going. I want to see that swagger again. We need it."

New Mets manager Art Howe says he has been "amazed" at how hard Vaughn has worked daily on the back practice fields with infield coach Matt Galante on his defense. That is precisely what he did in '98 with Jimy Williams, and had a good defensive season. "I think he can do the same," says Howe.

But what Howe wants is for Mo to be his old vocal self. "I want him to be the leader here he was in Boston," says Howe. "I want him talking." The rest of the Mets everyday players are quiet, and they want Mo to be the guy the writers seek after a tough loss.

"I have to produce, then talk," says Mo.

Looking at the bigger picture, it's hard to know how improved these Mets will be. They clearly have some serious issues: Roger Cedeno in center field is, well, no Terrence Long; Pedro Astacio is going to have to start the season on the disabled list, which limits their ability to trade for a center fielder or third baseman.

So as it stands now, unless a cheap center fielder comes along, these Mets are what you see. If Vaughn comes back in the five-hole behind Robby Alomar (who doesn't seem overly happy), Cliff Floyd and Mike Piazza, then they will add 100-150 runs to the paltry performance that scored the fewest runs in the NL East.

Howe right now plans to break up Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz by putting Ty Wigginton in the sixth spot in the order. "I believe we'll get good production after Mo," says hitting coach Denny Walling. "Jeromy isn't there yet, but we've broken down and simplified things, and he's almost there. I love Wigginton. He's going to hammer the ball in the alleys, perfect between those two guys. Wait and see. Wigginton is going to be a major surprise and Burnitz is going to make a big comeback."

Jose Reyes played in his first game Saturday. He will open the season at Triple-A Norfolk, but he'll come to the majors in short order. If the Mets can avoid trading RHP Aaron Heilman for a third baseman or outfielder, then they can start breaking in a new generation of talent while getting financial flexibility at the end of this season.

Comeback Stop No. 3
Jupiter, Fla.
Pudge Rodriguez

On Thursday, Pudge Rodriguez took a breaking ball in the dirt on a short hop and gunned out Atlanta's Mark DeRosa trying to steal second. Later, after catching ball four, he gunned a throw to third and picked off another runner. Saturday, he picked Lo Duca off first.

Ivan Rodriguez
Ivan Rodriguez isn't as angry as he was late last season in Texas.

"I just want the National League to know I'm back and I'll throw anytime, any place," says Pudge. "I feel as good as I have in a long time. I've got those rabbits (Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo) in front of me, and I've told them when I hit the ball in the gap, 'I expect you to score.' This is going to be good."

Rodriguez admits that last spring he came in too big (230 pounds), hurt his back and was never in sync catching all season. But after a winter of intense leg work, he is back at 213. But, after sitting around waiting for free-agent offers and having to choose between three years with Baltimore and one with the Marlins, "I decided to reprove myself, then go out on the market."

Health no longer seems to be an issue for Rodriguez. A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and this young Florida staff are his personal issue.

"From day one, Pudge has insisted on catching them all in the bullpen," says Jeff Torborg. "He talks to them, he listens, but they're in awe of him."

"Why shouldn't we be?" says Burnett. "He's a great player. We can throw any pitch at any time and we know he'll get it; when you're trying to throw that two strike breaking ball out of the strike zone for the punchout, that really means something. Now we don't have to worry about the running game. No slidesteps. Just concentrate on what we're throwing."

What's fascinating about the Marlins is that they believe they are serious contenders. They think Pierre and Castillo will get on base, Pudge will kill balls to the gap and they have enough power with emerging star Derrek Lee and Mike Lowell batting fourth and fifth.

"What we really do well is catch the ball," says Torborg. "Lee is one of the best defensive first basemen I've ever seen. (Alex) Gonzalez and Castillo could win Gold Gloves. That means a lot to these pitchers."

If Burnett stays healthy, after his 12-9 season a year ago, he could jump to the 18-to-20 win class. Beckett is still young, and while the Marlins aren't sure if he can avoid blister problems, but he has enormous ability despite just six wins last season.

The rest of the staff are promises: Brad Penny (8-7), Mark Redman (8-15), Carl Pavano (6-10, 5.15). The staff believes Pavano is the sleeper, as after a winter of rehab, yoga and weights he has thrown in the mid-90s and shown the potential that once got him traded for Pedro Martinez.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm here," says Lee. "We think we have something special. Wait and see."

All-Star idea is Bush League
The Players Association will apparently go along with the idea of allowing the winner of the All-Star Game determine which league gets home-field advantage for the World Series.

"We are against it," says Mets pitcher Al Leiter, "but we respect the importance of television."


Fox explained to the players that the TV ratings drop by 50 percent by the fourth or fifth inning as regulars leave, to nothing by the ninth inning.

Fine. Fox is absolutely right to push what it can.

But there are other ways to improve this exhibition without infringing on the integrity of the World Series, which this PR stunt does. If they want to have home-field advantage determined by which league wins the interleague series, fine.

But the All-Star Game has nothing to do with the championship season, and as Leiter points out, "in the World Series the home-field advantage does mean something. I know. I've been there."

The last eight times there has been a seventh game, the home team has won, which means MLB is willing to give a decided advantage to one team based on a meaningless exhibition in which 50 or 55 of the players involved will have no stake in the World Series.

OK, OK, OK. They screwed up the last All-Star Game. Make the managers play the regulars, the way Ted Williams was still in the game to win the '41 game. Let the winning pitcher be Joe Millionaire. Give the top offensive player his own reality show.

But selling out the World Series because every decision that comes out of MLB is based in PR?

More changes blowing in the wind
Speaking of changes, Leiter and several other player reps think it is a good idea to add a team to the playoff mix and give the team with the best record in each league a bye.

"That would make the season be important right down to the last day," says Senator Leiter. "This way, if the Yankees have clinched first place with three weeks left, they have to play it right down to the last day. Believe me, the team with that bye has a big advantage."

Canning the cap
And speaking of Major League Baseball, Cardinals reliever Steve Kline has been informed by Bob Watson that he my no longer wear his legendary old cap. "Character in the game is outlawed," says Kline. "Or maybe there's a rule that you can't play with salt on your hat."

Oh, dear.

Focus: St. Louis
The Cardinals are very pleased with pitcher Cal Eldred, who threw four shutout innings Friday. "He can be a major contributor for us," says manager Tony La Russa of the one-time Brewer ace who sat out all last season after hurting his elbow April 12, 2001.

Rick Ankiel was lights-out Friday; hitters couldn't pick up his fastball coming out of his hand, which was a very good sign, since he's always thrown his curveball for strikes and had his problems with his fastball. For now, Ankiel is vying for the third left-handed reliever spot behind Kline and Jeff Fassero.

And get this: if he pitches one day, La Russa says he'll have Ankiel listed as a pinch-hitter the next two days. As the Brewers experiment with Brooks Kieschnick, it makes one wonder why more teams don't use an Ankiel or Dreifort as a pinch-hitter, creating a 26th player.

More Cardinals nuggets:

Long, winding road
The Cardinals' 2003 version of Jason Simontacchi is left-hander Dan Serafini. He was released in spring training a year ago by the Angels and well, he can tell the story.

"I was released, like, on the last day of spring training or second-to-last day of spring training," said the one-time No. 1 pick of the Twins. "So I took a couple months off, stayed with the family and then went to Korea for a couple weeks.

"I made the team there and then, after I signed my contract there, they found out I was on the major league roster the year before so they said I had to go home. I couldn't play there (because) you have to have two years off (a big league) roster. I spent two weeks in Korea, then left.

"My agent got me a tryout over in Taiwan. They called and they were looking for a starting pitcher so I told them that I'd go over there and tryout. So I went over there and tried out and played for a couple weeks and made the team there. Then, I got sent home because the catcher was suspected of throwing games or gambling and stuff so they had to sign another foreign catcher form Japan."

And the life in Taiwan?

"We were like in the middle of the jungle. Pretty much, there's nothing around -- trees, bushes everywhere. We had to walk everywhere. No one spoke English there, so it was really hard to get around.

"The players were great and the team was really hospitable and stuff like that. We had a nice place to stay as far as apartment complexes and stuff, but just trying to get around and eat you had to eat their food, which isn't so bad but it's a culture shock for me. We had some weird fish one night when I went out with my translator and their family They brought this big old fish out that had teeth bigger than my fingers and just looking right at me. They're all picking at it with chopsticks and stuff like that. I was like. 'I can't eat that, something that's looking at me and has huge teeth like that (smiles).'

"We had soft-boiled eggs that came in a little cup and you crack it open and started eating it. It was like a soft-boiled egg. (It) wasn't too bad. Then, all of a sudden, there was a little chicken still inside of it so I shut that down, too.

"My first night there I went out with the translator and their family when you're eating, you have a normal sip of a drink or a Coke or whatever. Well, they bring out these big huge 40-ounce beers that are room temperature and they fill up your glass and everything and every time you go take a sip you have to toast somebody and shoot it down.

"So the first night, I was there I had, like, 15 beers and was completely hammered (smiles). I don't even drink that much -- but I'm trying to fit in with everybody and I couldn't even walk out of the restaurant. It was ridiculous."

So Serafini went back to driving a truck delivering hardwood flooring, then went to Mexico for winter ball. "I tell people I'll play for free this year," he says, "as long as it's in the U.S."
-- Peter Gammons

  • The Cardinals are also pleased with Brett Tomko. That means, with Jason Simontacchi and Eldred looking as if they'll be in the rotation, Garrett Stephenson could be an odd man out.

  • La Russa hopes that Jim Edmonds' pulled calf will be healed for Opening Day. "I've never had it happen before," says Edmonds. "So I don't know what to expect."

  • Fernando Vina has had duplicates of his two Gold Gloves made and given them to long-time Cardinal instructor and coordinator George Kissell. "All I can tell you," says Kissell, who has been in the organization since 1946, "is that he brought tears to my eyes. And I'll also tell you that I've never seen anyone who turns the double play as well."

  • Simontacchi has been asked by Italy to pitch for that country in the 2004 Olympics in Greece. "Hopefully," he says, "I'll be with the Cardinals."

    In 2000, Simontacchi had been released in the minors for a second time and was pitching in Italy. He pitched in the Olympics, winning two games and posting a 1.29 ERA., "It was an interesting experience pitching in Italy," he says. "It was the first time I ever saw guys smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in the dugout."

    Some of the good signs of spring

  • Shawn Estes, who was topping out at 84 mph at the end of last season, getting to 90-91 for the Cubs.

  • The Mets believe Tyler Yates is their closer of the future once he learns to ease off the 98-100 velocity.

  • Detroit is excited about Jeremy Bonderman. "He was throwing as easy 95 (mph) with movement," says one executive. "He's 20, and he could be a star. Billy Beane has traded some good arms in the last two years." The Tigers think Bonderman will be a No. 1 starter and that Franklyn German is their future closer.

  • The A's have a number of their own pleasant stories, including Rich Harden, who throws in the upper 90s. Ted Lilly, with his leg strength and lengthened stride, is throwing harder than he ever did with the Yankees.

    As for the future, catcher Jeremy Brown -- the beast drafted out of Alabama last June -- and shortstop Bobby Crosby have had exceptional springs.

  • The Red Sox are very encouraged that Chad Fox, who when healthy has closer stuff, is throwing 93-95 mph with his great breaking ball. Now he just has to stay healthy. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis has been very impressive, and is not far away from the big leagues.

  • The Blue Jays have seen a tireless worker and vastly improved player in second baseman Orlando Hudson. They are very excited about a few kids, notably right-hand pitcher Aquilino Lopez (who they acquired in the Rule V draft), outfielder John-Ford Griffin and last year's No. 1 pick, second baseman Russ Adams. Also, Jeff Tam is healthy and throwing as he did two years ago.

  • The Marlins have two very talented Koreans in camp, and while they both must return to Korea for this season, they may be back in the future.

    First baseman Sang-Yeop Lee, a four-time MVP (he hit 47home runs last year) for Samsung, has already hit two homers this spring, and he is a free agent after this season. Outfielder Jeong-Soo Shim, who hit 46 homers for Hyundai, has also already homered for The Phish.

    "They could play here right now," says Torborg. "They are athletic, they have power, they're great kids and they love being here."

    Lee and Shim seem most intrigued by Torborg's son, Dale, the pro wrestling strength and conditioning coach whom they call "Giant." Torborg, who'll be doing pay-per-view wrestling as MVP (but with a new character adjustment related to baseball), delights the players with his weight room wrestling videos.

  • Indians GM Mark Shapiro is having a hard time keeping his staff's eyes off right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.

    "What is there not to like?" asks pitching coach Mike Brown. "He's got great stuff, he's an athlete who repeats his delivery, he's smart and he's really dedicated." Manager Eric Wedge and Brown are also very impressed with RHP Ricardo Rodriguez, while Ben Broussard has come in bigger and quicker and provided some competition for Travis Hafner, himself a very impressive rookie.

  • Maybe the best sight for Wedge came on the anniversary of Alex Escobar's season-ending knee injury (and the sight of him crashing against the fence). "He made a long run and showed no fear going right to the wall at top speed," says Wedge. "He made the catch, then pushed off the wall without breaking a stride. It was great to see."

  • The Cardinals still haven't sent 20-year old cartcher Yadier Molina back to the minors because La Russa is so enamored with him. Older brothers Bengie and Jose are with the Angels.

    "He's going to be a big-time receiver with a top arm," says St. Louis catching instructor Danny Schaeffer. "And I think he'll hit and hit for power. He could be a star."

    Around the majors

  • In Montreal, Javier Vazquez' elbow was tender the second half of last season. This spring, he's right back where he was. Expos manager Frank Robinson indicates that Zach Day has the inside track on the fifth spot behind Vazquez, Tomo Ohka, Tony Armas and El Duque Hernandez.

  • Orlando Cabrera's back is better, but the Expos wonder if it will ever allow him to be 100 percent again.

  • The Diamondbacks think they are close to extensions for Randy Johnson at $32 million for two years and Luis Gonzalez for $30 million for three years.

  • If you don't subscribe to Baseball Prospectus online, you are making a huge mistake. If for no other reason, Will Carroll's Under the Knife is invaluable inside medical information one cannot get anywhere else.

  • And if you don't go to and order Flynn's new disc "Let the Show Begin," you're missing one of the best rising artists in the business. The first track, "Human," would be a No. 1 hit if small labels were allowed to be aired, and "Pompei," "Time to Move On" and "Sleep with Angels" are all very, very good.

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