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Brown says he's healthy, happy
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
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
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
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
"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."
"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
"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
"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
Focus: St. Louis
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:
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
As for the future, catcher Jeremy Brown -- the beast drafted out of Alabama last June -- and shortstop Bobby Crosby have had exceptional springs.
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.
"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.
"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."
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