The worst fears of the Dodgers were realized Tuesday when they learned that starter Darren Dreifort must undergo season-ending reconstructive elbow surgery for the second time in six years.
An MRI exam revealed that the right-hander suffered another large tear of the medial collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, and that his flexor tendon muscle had torn from the bone.
Dreifort, who sat out the 1995 season after surgery, is expected to be sidelined until the 2002 All-Star break at least, and might miss most of next season because the club plans to proceed cautiously.
Team physicians Frank Jobe and Ralph Gambardella will perform the two-hour operation to repair the 90% tear and reattach the muscle next Tuesday at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.
Although the Dodgers braced for the worst, the news still hit hard.
"It's devastating," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "The bottom line is he's a competitor, he just loves the game, and it's unfortunate a guy like that has to go through this, not only once but twice now. Just devastating."
The typically stoic Dreifort tried to remain optimistic in the face of surgery and another long road back to the mound.
"I'm fine right now," Dreifort said. "But how are you supposed to deal with it? It's just like playing the lottery--it's just not a lottery you want to win.
"I want to go out there every fifth day and help the team win ballgames, have a good season, get to the postseason and all that. I won't be able to help them, at least on the mound, for the rest of the year. I feel worse about that than getting cut on."
Dreifort, who had experienced elbow soreness recently, finished 4-7 with a 5.13 earned-run average in the first season of a five-year, $55-million contract.
He has a salary of $9 million this season and next, and it escalates to $11 million in 2003 and '04, then $13 million in '05.
The contract also includes a $2-million signing bonus and a no-trade clause.
The combined $77.5-million contracts of Dreifort and starter Andy Ashby--also out after season-ending elbow surgery--are insured, meaning their salaries would be paid in subsequent seasons if they suffered season-ending injuries.
With two-fifths of the rotation sitting out, the Dodgers are considering increasing their $110-million payroll to add a veteran starter if the club stays in the National League West race.
"I don't think we'll address that until we get closer to the [July 31 trading] deadline," interim General Manager Dave Wallace said. "We're going to do everything we can to remain competitive.
"However, we've got to also keep in mind what we're looking at down the line. We want to have a pretty good team for a while, so we don't want to upset that balance. But we're not ruling anything out."
Because a tendon from Dreifort's left forearm was removed in his first surgery, a tendon from his pitching forearm will be removed for this reconstruction.
"It won't make his arm weaker," Jobe said. "It doesn't because about 20% of people don't have [that tendon]."
Jobe, who also performed Dreifort's first surgery in 1995, believes the seven-year veteran should make a "good recovery."
However, Jobe, who pioneered the procedure on former Dodger pitcher Tommy John in 1974, acknowledged that Dreifort is in uncharted waters because few pitchers have had the surgery twice.
"I don't think, in the several thousand of them that we've done, there's been more than a couple that we had to redo, and I can't think of one who's come back," Jobe said. "But we've only done about two, there's no real track record for a second time, and I'm not sure the ones we did twice were professional pitchers.
"But I know physiology a little bit, so that's why I said I thought he would do well. I don't see anything in there that makes me worry. I think he'll do as well this time as he did before, which means that a year from now he should be able to pitch again."
Jobe said Dreifort's injuries occurred in last Friday's 7-5 victory over the San Diego Padres at Qualcomm Stadium, adding that they could not have been prevented.
But Jobe also conceded that Dreifort's slingshot delivery and 96-mph velocity causes enormous strain on his elbow.
Could Dreifort's pitching mechanics lead to another blowout?
"I'm not a pitching coach, and I'd hate to make a judgment on that, but that's probably a possibility," Jobe said. "He throws awfully hard, but he did so well from the first [surgery], and having one doesn't make the second one more difficult or less likely to do well.
"I'm encouraged about him because he does have a good work ethic. The thing that helps a good recovery is having a smart patient who follows orders, understands them and works hard. You have them all right there in Darren."
Dreifort knows what lies ahead.
"The [timetable] for the rehab on this is a year, basically, before you're good again," said the fourth-year starter, sidelined about 11 months after his first surgery. "I'll be throwing in four months, [throwing] off the mound in 10.