Gagne's latest comeback bid clouded by uncertainty
Posted: Monday June 26, 2006 3:04PM; Updated: Tuesday June 27, 2006 10:25AM
Dodger Stadium used to rock when Eric Gagne entered a game, but the former Cy Young winner has been on the shelf for the better part of two years.
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LOS ANGELES -- The memory of Eric Gagne entering a ball game is one of the most profound ones that fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers have.
Right now, that's all Gagne is -- a memory.
His entrances from the Dodger Stadium bullpen that used to make men rise and women dance. The whip of his first pitch that made them all swoon. Bigger than the Oscars, big like a California earthquake, Gagne was a rapid heartbeat for the masses.
But fan favorites have no small history of meeting a banal end with the Dodgers. The franchise allowed Steve Garvey to leave as a free agent, let Kirk Gibson go two Octobers after his World Series glory and released Fernando Valenzuela in spring training. Mike Piazza? Don't ask.
Today, 20 months removed from winning the 2004 National League Cy Young Award, Gagne might prove to be no exception. If the nerve pain in his throwing arm goes away, he hopes to begin a workout program this week that could have him back on the mound in July. Neither Gagne's talent nor his determination guarantees he can pitch for any significant duration this season. And nothing guarantees Gagne will wear a Dodgers uniform in 2007.
Right now, no one in the organization has anything noteworthy to say about Gagne's future because they're too confused by his present. The 30-year-old has thrown only 15 1/3 major league innings since 2004. In his second inning of 2006, on June 6, Gagne closed out a victory with pain that he described last Friday as "a grabbing sensation" in his nerve. He hasn't pitched since.
Finding a cure has been vexing because there is nothing structurally wrong with Gagne's arm. A switch to neurontin, a medication that works on the nervous system, has had an encouraging effect during the past week.
"We've exhausted a lot of options," Dodgers trainer Stan Johnston said.
"It's slow, slow progress," Gagne said. "It's frustrating. I know I've got to take my time, or it'll keep coming back."
So it's a waiting game -- complicated by how impatient Gagne has been in the past. He has a history of pitching through pain, and even if he claims to be pain-free at the moment, few can help wondering how long it will last.
"You just worry about somebody that's going to try to go a step further than he should," said Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll, a baseball injury expert. "The worst-case scenario is he tears the nerve, and then he's done, because he's going to lose control of his fingers. You can't fix the nerve."
Said Gagne, "It makes you realize you've got to take care of your body, that you might want to listen to it more."
Every move Gagne makes will have a bearing on not only his immediate future, but also the remainder of his career. Gagne stands to become one of the most intriguing free agents this offseason. The Dodgers have the option of paying him $12 million or buying out his contract for $1 million. It seems strange now to think there was a time not so long ago when it wasn't clear whether $12 million would be enough for Gagne -- his contract language allows Gagne to void the deal even if the Dodgers pick up the option.