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Bill Plaschke

Somebody Should Have Saved Gagne

June 17, 2005|Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

When taking the mound for his first game this spring, baseball's toughest pitcher didn't swagger, he limped.

Why didn't I scream about the limp?

When throwing his first pitch to an opposing hitter this spring, baseball's most fearless pitcher didn't fling, he lobbed.

Why didn't I rail about the lob?

After Eric Gagne's first appearance in late March, in the quiet of the Vero Beach clubhouse, I approached him with the intention of writing a column.

He was altering his mechanics to compensate for an injured knee. He should stop pitching immediately or risk damaging his arm.

I had seen it a dozen times before. It was Baseball 101. The story was clear.

But Gagne talked me out of it.

He talked the Dodger organization out of it.

"I know my body, my arm is fine, my mechanics are the same, I would never do anything to hurt myself, it was a normal first day," he said at the time.

Today, far too late to make a difference, the Dodgers finally know different.

Today, Eric Gagne, with a torn elbow, is on the verge of a surgery that could change a career, alter a season and spark an eternally Blue question.

It is the same question asked in 1990 when another Dodger pitcher two years removed from a Cy Young Award blew out his shoulder and was never the same.

It is the same question asked later that season when yet another Dodger Cy Young Award winner lost his velocity -- and eventually his job -- at the reported age of 29.

Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, and now Eric Gagne, franchise cornerstones forever cemented together by a single shaky thought.

Could the Dodgers have prevented Cy Burnout?

Even if they could, did they have a choice?

Hershiser won a World Series almost single-armedly, and said he had no regrets about the 15 complete games and 267 innings required to get there.

Valenzuela rose from a small Mexican village to become a Dodger icon, never once complaining about being ridden for more than 250 innings for six consecutive seasons during the journey.

(By comparison, none of the current Dodger starters has ever pitched as many as 250 innings).

And now there's Gagne, with the heart of Bulldog, the flair of Fernando, and an arm that is just as tired and weak and broken.

The names are different now, but the circumstances are the same.

Late last summer, the Dodgers needed Gagne to carry the bullpen after failing to re-sign favorite set-up man Paul Quantrill and trading away new favorite Guillermo Mota.

By fall, the team had baked up its first playoff win in 16 years, but its best player was cooked.

This spring, the Dodgers needed Gagne to be the team leader and centerpiece of a controversially gutted roster despite his bad knee.

By the outset of summer, he was, once again, cooked.

His numbers have been great. But his lack of fastballs has been stunning. So the diagnosis of a torn elbow was almost expected.

Another great Dodger pitcher, fading as dramatically as he once blazed?

Why does this keep happening?

"With Eric, it's tough to say," said Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta. "What really led to all this, it's impossible to say."

But there are clues.

Flash back to last Aug. 1, when the clubhouse was reeling from the trade of Paul Lo Duca and Mota, when the Dodgers desperately needed a settling win.

Gagne pitched a season-long three innings and they defeated the San Diego Padres in what Manager Jim Tracy later, and correctly, called the biggest victory of the season.

It was also the beginning of a six-day stretch in which Gagne appeared four times and threw 109 pitches. And that doesn't include the countless tosses in the bullpen.

After struggling throughout a hot August stretch, Gagne regained his form in September, but batters were whispering that he seemed tired.

But Gagne said he wanted to work. And Tracy was under orders to turn this mismatched roster into a champion.

"I could not go to bed at night thinking I used a guy too much ... I carefully monitored pitch counts," Tracy said. "But yes, because of the position we were in, yes, we had to use him regularly. If we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat with our best guy out there."

There were those who wondered if the beginnings of Gagne's elbow injury didn't occur last September. But the Dodgers were not among them. His work led to the team's first playoff win since 1988 and silenced most doubters.

The Dodgers believed so much in his endurance, in fact, they guaranteed him $19 million this winter in a two-year deal. By league rules, they could have given him a one-year deal in an amount decided by an arbitrator.

They believed so much that, when he injured his knee this spring, they allowed him to push the comeback, which finally ended in pain and awkwardness just before opening day.

"The real question is, did he try to come back too soon," DePodesta said. "Knowing Eric, he was the one pushing to go back out there."

Among others, I can certainly testify to that fact.

By now, you would have thought I would have learned. You would have certainly thought the Dodgers would have learned.

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