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A Prodigal Son Returns a Man : Baseball: Dodgers' Gott had all of the advantages as a child in San Marino. Now he helps others find themselves.

August 07, 1990|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CINCINNATI — There once was a boy from San Marino who was blessed with an arm that could pitch a baseball hard and seemingly forever.

He was also blessed with parents who could give him the money to develop his gift.

But the were never enough. He wanted more and could only find it in the middle of the night, in strange parties with strange people who only wished they could be him. He abused his gifts and soon he was no longer blessed.

One day, when the boy was finally being paid to play baseball, he partied all night for the last time. His father collected his clothes, put them on the front doorstep and locked the door behind them. The father told the boy to get out, and not come back until he grew up.

Ten years have passed. The boy is now a man, and when he takes the pitching mound for the Dodgers this week against the Cincinnati Reds in the season's most important series to date, there is something he wants everyone to know.

Jim Gott has come back. And he has grown up.

After a year of rehabilitation followed by 26 games of uncertainty, Gott hopes his gift serves him well this week, when, with top reliever Jay Howell injured, the Dodgers might finally give him the ball and their trust with a big game on the line.

"Now that it counts, now that we're in a pennant race, it is a perfect time for my first win or save as a Dodger," Gott said with a smile. "I am right where I want to be."

He is speaking not as one of Howell's setup men, but as a guy who will probably face the division-leading Reds with the game in doubt because Howell is suffering from a sore left knee.

Gott is also not only speaking of how he is reaching the end of his recovery from the elbow surgery he had in May of 1988. After giving up seven runs with three home runs in his first 5 1/3 innings this season, he has yielded only four earned runs and one homer in his last 23 2/3 innings.

When Gott says he is where he wants to be, he is not speaking just of this week in Cincinnati. He is also talking about playing for the Dodgers at 31, as a player with a reputation not merely for success but sincerity.

As the Dodgers learned when Gott signed on as a free agent from the Pittsburgh last winter, he was more than just an eight-year veteran with 47 saves in his previous two seasons. He had become one of baseball's leading citizens, one who donates hours to children in drug rehabilitation centers or homes for the abused. At baseball clinics, in hospitals, in schools, Gott speaks to children about taking nothing for granted, about making the most of their gifts.

Gott is glad to be playing in Los Angeles because it is only there that people can appreciate how much that spoiled brat has changed.

"When I left here, I was a mess," Gott said. "That is the big reason I wanted to come back. I want people to see that you can turn it around."

Jim Gott is different from most major leaguers in that he takes less batting practice now than he did when he was in eighth grade.

Then he began to realize he was the only thing that would keep him from becoming a professional baseball player. Everything else had been supplied. He had the height, the coordination and the three-times-a-week private batting lessons at the Temple City batting cage.

"I would go into Cage 1, against the Sandy Koufax machine, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Gott said. "My dad would bring a video camera and tape my lessons and then I would study them. It was like, 'Do your homework. Do your batting lessons.'

"I had every kind of help money could buy."

Said his father, Van Gott: "I pushed, but only because I wanted him to be as good as he could be. If he could achieve that and still not make any team, fine. But I didn't want him to do less than he could do."

The more Jim Gott felt pushed, the more he pushed back. When the brat inside him began to surface with constant complaining and attempts to skip lessons, his father pushed harder by registering him to play in a Little League in the lower income area of Montebello.

"My dad wanted me to see that everyone wasn't as fortunate as us," Gott said. "He didn't want me to get what he called the San Marino syndrome of kids who miss Little League games because they are going to Europe. So we would drive into these poor areas in our Mercedes and I would play with the rough kids."

Yet, Gott was still too talented, and understood his advantages too well to work any harder than necessary.

"Jim's brother Eric was a golfer, and he was like, if it was Saturday, he wanted to be out working on the course all day," Van Gott said. "Jim, on the other hand, thought Saturdays were good days to get out of working on baseball."

To keep Jim eligible to pitch for San Marino High, where he was voted Class AA player of the year in his senior season, the school's principal summoned him to the office every day.

"He would say he just wanted to give me a piece of fruit," Gott recalled. "But I knew he was keeping tabs on me and keeping me out of trouble."

Even that didn't work.

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