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Gagne injury raises questions (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday April 12, 2006 12:27PM; Updated: Wednesday April 12, 2006 5:44PM
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Eric Gagne insisted he would be ready this spring, but his 2006 debut has been delayed about two months.
Eric Gagne insisted he would be ready this spring, but his 2006 debut has been delayed about two months.

Let's get back to Gagne. He returned to the mound in mid-March 2005, before his knee was completely healed. He did so fully aware that the injury might affect his pitching. He kept voicing surprise to reporters that the knee wasn't healing as fast as he thought it would, even though the Dodgers medical staff had been telling him it would take longer than he expected.

Following his first exhibition game on March 20, Gagne admitted pitching without putting his full weight on the knee. Even more shocking, after his second appearance, on March 22, he acknowledged altering his mechanics to compensate for the discomfort.

This wasn't Curt Schilling with a bloody sock in October. It was two weeks before the season. Still, Gagne pressed on, and the Dodgers held their breath.

Then, on April Fools' Day, the Dodgers disclosed that Gagne would start the 2005 season on the disabled list with a sprained right elbow. Whether the knee injury contributed to the arm malady remains uncertain, but it seems reasonable to question whether Gagne should have been in such a hurry to solve the mysteries of his body that March.

Gagne escaped the disabled list on May 13, lasting a month before returning to undergo surgery. Again, there was encouraging news in that while Gagne was on the operating table, Dr. Frank Jobe determined that a Tommy John procedure would not be needed. Again, this may have made Gagne and the Dodgers too eager.

Gagne had his first bullpen workout of 2006 in mid-February and appeared in his first spring training game on March 8. As the time passed, the speed of Gagne's fastball tapered, and he struggled to make back-to-back appearances. He threw his last exhibition season pitch on March 31. Yet it wasn't until April 5 that Gagne reportedly told Dodgers trainer Stan Johnston for the first time that he had been pitching in pain.

For some reason, after all that he had been through, Gagne was too focused on a quick return to disclose his anguish, and the Dodgers couldn't discern it for themselves.

Gagne underwent his latest surgery last Friday, and once more the good news came wrapped in strange packaging. Doctors only had to remove a nerve in his arm. There will just be some ensuing numbness.

The Dodgers hope to see Gagne make his 2006 debut in fewer than eight weeks. But whatever date Gagne and the Dodgers pick, they should consider self-imposing an automatic delay -- the same way TV executives now censor Super Bowl halftime appearances. Even with the promise that the worst has to be behind them, it's time to play it safe. Gagne has been one of the most reliable relievers in Dodgers history, but if anything has become clear, it's that he cannot be trusted to monitor his physical condition. The Dodgers training staff should draw similar skepticism.

This isn't meant to be an insult. No one's saying this stuff is easy. But given that it's not easy, isn't it time that everyone involved started to take it easy? If the past two seasons have been the Dodgers' idea of being careful with Gagne, isn't it time to redefine what "being careful" means?

Between the lines, baseball's biggest sinner is the malingerer: the guy who doesn't run out a ground ball, the guy who asks for a day off to nurse the sniffles. But when you think about it, perhaps some cross words should be directed at the chronic gamer, the player who can't see that he needs to rest until it's too late.

For all the misfortune the Dodgers have endured since their last World Series title in 1988, Gagne was a gift. He was an off-the-radar minor leaguer with the modest potential to become an average starting pitcher, who instead became baseball's greatest reliever this side of Mariano Rivera. The Dodgers got a break in Gagne. They could use some more. But they also need to make their own breaks.

It's time to get real. It's time for everyone -- Gagne included -- to stop living on hope, to stop looking at Gagne as a superhero. Impatience is like kryptonite for a stubborn competitor like Gagne. If there is to be a next chapter in his career, it's time to be open about the pain and let the guy heal. Completely.

A former sportswriter with the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times, Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers and baseball at Dodger Thoughts. His book, The Best of Dodger Thoughts, is on sale now.