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Gagne closed out Dodgers

After three electric seasons and two plagued by injuries, he starts fresh with the Rangers, who are convinced that he can finish games.

February 18, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

SURPRISE, ARIZ. — He'll still dress in blue, a lighter shade of blue. But, on the first day of the rest of his life, he had Dodger blue on his mind.

Eric Gagne reported to work with the Texas Rangers on Saturday, thousands of miles away from the Dodgers and hundreds of miles from the fans that adored him.

He was the Fernando Valenzuela of his generation, the player that captivated fans with his performance, statistical and otherwise. Two decades ago, kids imitated their favorite Dodger by kicking a leg into the air and rolling their eyes toward the sky. In the middle of this decade, kids imitated their favorite Dodger by slapping on goggles and a fake goatee.

In a town built on entertainment, this was the best show: Gagne charging in from the bullpen, lights flashing, music blaring, and on every video board floating images of his face, along with the caption that defined an era: GAME OVER.

And now the era is over. After three seasons marked by domination and two more marked by injury, Gagne and the Dodgers divorced this winter.

Danys Baez saved as many games as Gagne did for the Dodgers the last two seasons, so the words should not shock or sting, but they do: Now closing for the Texas Rangers, Eric Gagne.

"I'm going to miss the fans in L.A. so much," he said. "It's going to be hard. You can't erase 11 years of your life just like that.

"All I know with my life is being a Dodger."

He's disappointed that his time with the Dodgers has ended. So are the fans. So, too, is Ned Colletti, in his second season as the Dodgers' general manager.

"It's one of the missing pieces to my time here, not having him," Colletti said. "When I took this job, it was one of the aspects of it I was really looking forward to. I knew how tremendous this guy was."

If Gagne wanted to stay, and Colletti wanted him to stay, why is he here in Surprise? Is it as simple as saying Texas would guarantee him $6 million and the Dodgers would not?

"I don't like talking about negotiations," Gagne said. "They showed some interest. I guess they didn't show enough. For me, this is a great place to start again."

He set the major league record by converting 84 consecutive save chances, 30 more than the old record, from 2002 to '04. He had elbow surgery the next year and back surgery last year.

The Dodgers paid him $19 million for those two seasons. They got 15 innings.

"They spent a lot of money on me and it didn't pay off," he said. "I wish I could have done more for my teammates, for the fans and for Mr. McCourt," referring to the Dodgers' owner.

The Dodgers might reasonably have offered him a minor league contract -- come to camp, prove you're healthy, nothing guaranteed until you do. With Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton, after all, they have a closer and a closer-in-waiting.

But, according to Colletti, they offered Gagne $4 million in guaranteed money and another $6 million in incentives. Colletti and Gagne agree that negotiations never advanced far enough to discuss how to structure the incentives.

The Rangers got him for $6 million guaranteed and another $4 million in incentives, and they recruited him hard.

"They showed a lot of interest in me and a lot of confidence in me," he said. "It's not really about the money."

Akinori Otsuka saved 32 games for the Rangers last season. And yet Texas plans to bump him back to the eighth inning for Gagne, who has scarcely pitched in two years.

"He's known as the best closer in baseball," Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. "We saw an opportunity to have him. He has no doubt he can pitch. He's convinced us he's healthy. He's convinced our medical people he's healthy."

Washington said he would limit Gagne to the ninth inning and use Otsuka to close on some days rather than use Gagne on too many consecutive days. He plans to ease Gagne through spring training, and he acknowledged the Rangers aren't sure whether Gagne can recover his dominating form.

"If he doesn't get back 100%, I'll take 90%," Washington said.

As Gagne prepares to take his chances in Texas blue, how would he explain to fans in Los Angeles why he no longer wears Dodger blue?

"It just didn't work out for both sides," he said. "We didn't come to an understanding. We just parted ways. It's nothing personal. It's just a business decision."

In no way, Gagne said, did what happened in 2005 and 2006 obligate him to accept the Dodgers' contract offer for 2007.

"I never felt I owed them something," Gagne said. "I felt bad that I couldn't perform, for the fans and for the team. I wish it could have worked out. It didn't. They went in a different direction, and that's understandable. No hard feelings. I've been hurt for two years.

"I wish I could have changed everything that happened in the last two years. I can't. Maybe our paths will cross again."

*

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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