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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Return Is Like a Dream for Weaver

March 04, 2004|Ross Newhan

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Jeff Weaver is pumped, to use his word.

Pumped to have the opportunity to come home and pitch for his favorite team growing up in Simi Valley.

Pumped to be convinced that he has restored the mechanics and confidence damaged during his difficult and disappointing 1 1/2 seasons with the New York Yankees.

Pumped to be certain that he can retain the spot in the Dodger rotation that is currently his.

"I don't see any reason I can't be the No. 3 or 4 starter and go from there," Weaver said.

The question, as Weaver starts today's exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves and begins to defend his berth in a rotation that includes Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Odalis Perez and Edwin Jackson, is this:

Can Manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Jim Colborn keep the pump inflated in the wake of Weaver's deflating experience in New York?

It is one of the most significant issues facing a team that again might need to burden its pitching given the lingering lineup deficiencies.

Said Tracy: "I'm not going to over-analyze his first two or three appearances this spring."

Said Colborn: "He looks ready to compete. His mechanics have been solid and consistent.

"If there was a negative energy and momentum that snowballed in New York, he seems to be out from under it. The objective is to give him a chance to be the pitcher he can be."

It is the first week of March. A year ago, Weaver had a sensational spring with the Yankees only to have it dissolve amid the Bronx summer, leaving him suspended between the rotation and bullpen.

He finished a season of 32 appearances and 24 starts with a 7-9 record and 5.99 earned-run average and had not pitched in 35 days when, with Yankee pitching options evaporating, he was called on to work the 11th inning in Game 4 of the World Series.

Amid the pressure of the 3-3 tie and the pleading of the Florida Marlin partisans in Pro Player Stadium, Weaver retired the side in order and walked off feeling on top of the world.

"I just knew we'd score and I'd get a 'W' in the World Series," he said in reflection. "After all the previous problems, how great would that have been?"

Great, indeed, but it didn't happen.

The Yankees didn't score in the 12th, and Weaver yielded a full-count, game-winning homer to Alex Gonzalez leading off the Florida half.

It was nothing more than a 330-foot fly that hugged the left-field line, but it ignited the Marlins' three-game, Series-clinching win streak and would translate to Weaver's last competitive pitch for the Yankees, although he didn't know it at the time.

In fact, the Yankees sent him to their Tampa training facility in November to work with pitching guru Billy Connors and told him he wouldn't be traded.

"I was excited to go to Tampa and have the opportunity to try and figure out where I was from a mechanical and mental standpoint," Weaver said. "I was told that I'd be back [with the Yankees] to try and dig myself out of the hole and I appreciated the support. Obviously, things changed, but I'm more than happy they did."

New York traded Weaver, two minor leaguers and $3 million to the Dodgers for Kevin Brown in mid-December.

The Dodgers, privately wary of Weaver's coming off his disappointing stint with the Yankees, tried to find alternatives but ultimately knew they had to get what they could. Brown wanted out, the Dodgers wanted the payroll savings and they couldn't run the risk of retaining his unhappy presence in a clubhouse in which he wasn't the most popular or effervescent figure to start with.

The Yankees, meantime, had lost starters Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells. They needed a proven veteran of Brown's capability, and maybe the Gonzalez homer lingered in their mind, as they knew it would linger with fans already hostile to the young pitcher who had failed to sustain his promising emergence during his initial 3 1/2 seasons with the Detroit Tigers.

"Some of the things that happened to Jeff in New York were in his control and some weren't," Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman said. "It was kind of the Pigpen theory where there was always a dark cloud, as if nothing ever went right.

"I give Jeff credit for trying to fight through it, but New York can be an unforgiving town, and I'm not sure our fan base would have accepted bringing him back.

"I think Jeff can still be everything we thought he could be, and I believe he believes that, but it was in his best interest to try and climb out of his hole in another city.

"He's always pitched well on the West Coast [3-1, 1.88 ERA in Anaheim], and I think he'll benefit from going to the National League [with one less hitter to face] and working in a pitcher's park like Dodger Stadium."

Weaver's acquisition by the Yankees in July 2002, part of a three-way trade with the Tigers and Oakland Athletics, was viewed as something of Steinbrennerian excess.

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