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THE INSIDE TRACK | PAGE TWO

Elster Seems No Better Than Short-Term Answer

March 29, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

Kevin Elster is the Dodgers' starting shortstop. That is a move many observers believed the team needed to make--in 1993.

Elster, coming off his second shoulder surgery, was signed as a free agent in January of that year to put pressure on Jose Offerman, then the starting shortstop.

Elster did his job well. Offerman was so pressured that he developed stomach pains. His fielding, adventurous at best, became even more erratic, and he lashed out at critics by threatening to "zipper your mouths."

But the Dodgers weren't convinced that Elster's shoulder was strong enough. They sent him on a rehabilitation assignment to double-A San Antonio and, as obligated by their contract, granted him his release in May. Their prognosis proved correct. He played only 43 major league games, with the Yankees and the Phillies, over the next two seasons.

Elster had an astonishing season in 1996, hitting .252 with 24 home runs and 99 runs batted in for Texas and winning American League comeback-player-of-the-year honors. But he was injured again in 1998, playing only 39 games for the Pirates, and after being released by the Rangers in July 1998, retired to build a bar in Las Vegas.

It seems that the Dodgers needed a shortstop more than Vegas needed another bar.

They signed him a month before spring training began, presumably to put pressure on Alex Cora. Elster again did his job well, so well that Cora was sent last week to triple-A Albuquerque, and Elster, seven years after he was first a candidate, will be the starting shortstop.

This is a nice story, especially for Elster. It has a "Bull Durham" quality to it, and, in fact, some who know Elster say he reminds them of the Crash Davis character played by Kevin Costner--the seen-it-all and done-most-of-it veteran who is generous with his wisdom.

Yeah, this could work, in a movie.

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This is a very curious move, even for a franchise that has made almost no other kind in the last two years.

I know Davey Johnson has thought highly of Elster since managing him for the Mets. The fact that it was 10 years ago, I suppose, is merely a detail. But, even then, Elster was appreciated more for his sure-handed efficiency than his range, and now, at 35, he is a threat to even fewer ground balls.

It is interesting that Mark Grudzielanek, who was moved from shortstop to second base because of his limited range, has been replaced by a player who has less.

More alarming is that Elster has played only one full season since 1991.

Didn't the Dodgers have Bill Russell's phone number?

They tell us that they have a Plan B, that Cora is only a phone call away in Albuquerque. But if they believe he's the shortstop of the future, which Elster obviously is not, they should have forgiven his performance in Vero Beach as a false spring and brought him to Los Angeles.

Better yet, they should have given the job to the man with the magic glove, Juan Castro. He hits his weight--187--but not much more. But if you considered every hit he robs as part of his batting average, he would be Tony Gwynn.

It's not as if pitchers spend much time trying to figure out Elster, a career .228 hitter.

No, there's something else at work here. Could it be Plan C, getting by while waiting for Alex Rodriguez to become a free agent next winter?

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But what about this season?

If the baseball tenet is true that good teams must be strong up the middle, then the Dodgers might again not be a good team.

Start with Todd Hundley, the favorite catcher of National League base stealers last season. He was not nearly so popular with most of his own pitchers, who were hesitant to throw anything but fastballs with men on base because they wanted to give Hundley as much time as possible to throw. You think hitters didn't like having that information?

Hundley, we are assured by the Dodgers, is a stronger, more accurate thrower this season, although through Monday in spring training he had caught only one of nine stealing runners.

The Dodgers also assure us that Grudzielanek, who has played only 13 major league games at second base and none since 1995, is adjusting well. But, as one baseball executive said this week, "He's been used to having all of the action in front of him, and now much of it is to his back. The transition is not as easy as it seems."

Devon White might look during spring training as if he's a year younger than he was last season, but the reality is that he's a year older at 37. Todd Hollandsworth, who is pressing him, is no one's vision of a major league center fielder.

The pitching staff has one starter, 41-year-old Orel Hershiser, who acknowledges that he can't go more than five or six innings, and another, Carlos Perez, who is a ticking time bomb.

Zipper my mouth, but I don't see the Dodgers winning a title--even in a weak division made weaker Tuesday by the injury to Arizona's Matt Williams--or advancing to the playoffs. Take that for what it's worth. I have been wrong before. I thought they'd be in the World Series last year.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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