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CROWE'S NEST

Once a future star, Darren Dreifort is left with scars

Former Dodgers pitcher, whose $55-million contract made him a target of fan frustration, is still feeling effects of injuries that derailed his promising career. He just had his 22nd surgery.

June 29, 2009|JERRY CROWE

Darren Dreifort plans to be there this week when he is inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.

Body willing, of course.

His attendance at Friday's enshrinement in Lubbock, Texas, Dreifort notes without hint of irony or pathos, depends on "whether I can walk, or how well I'm getting around."

He's recovering from surgery.

This probably will come as no surprise to anyone who closely followed the star-crossed professional career of the former Dodgers right-hander. A seemingly can't-miss prospect, he wound up spending as much time rehabbing injuries as he did dueling batters during 11 major league seasons.

A hip procedure last Wednesday in Beverly Hills was his 22nd surgery -- his 20th since he left Wichita State after being the second player taken in the 1993 amateur draft behind only a slugging high school shortstop from Miami named Alex Rodriguez.

A dark cloud has followed Dreifort, 37, into retirement. He has endured eight surgeries since his last game Aug. 16, 2004, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury at a time when he already was scheduled for three other postseason operations.

Divorced, he lives in Pacific Palisades after moving from La Canada to be nearer his three sons, ages 7, 5 and 3, who live most of the week with their mother in Santa Monica.

Life hasn't played out as he'd hoped -- or major league scouts envisioned -- but Dreifort says he's OK with it.

"I've been able to do what I wanted to do," he says over coffee during an interview at a Starbucks near his home. "I wanted to play major league baseball and I wanted to raise my kids. I wish I could raise my kids full time, but that's the way it goes."

He and his ex-wife, Ann, have a "good relationship," Dreifort notes, "so the kids are doing very well."

They are his priority.

Financially secure -- who can forget the controversial $55-million contract the Dodgers lavished upon him? -- Dreifort is free to spend time with his sons without worrying about having to work.

Asked how he fills his days, he says, "Raising the kids," noting that he coaches them and is a school volunteer.

A call from the College Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted its first class of honorees in 2006, caught Dreifort by surprise.

Among nine others being enshrined this week are former World Series star Joe Carter, who preceded Dreifort at Wichita State, and former Mississippi State slugger Rafael Palmeiro.

"I'd never heard of it until they contacted me, but I'm thrilled," Dreifort says of his inclusion. "Joe Carter was an idol of mine growing up, so it's really cool to be going in with him."

The younger son of a Wichita State history professor, Dreifort helped the Shockers to three consecutive College World Series appearances, two resulting in runner-up finishes.

Utilized as a setup man, or "moment-of-truth" reliever, as Executive Editor Jim Callis of Baseball America described the role, Dreifort was 11-1 with a 2.48 earned-run average in his final collegiate season. Also utilized as a designated hitter in 1993, he batted .327 with 22 home runs and 66 runs batted in and won the Golden Spikes Award as baseball's top amateur player.

"Looking back on it," Dreifort says of his college career, "it was maybe the most fun I ever had. I grew up in Wichita and knew the coaches from the time I was about 7 years old, so to be able to stay there and accomplish as much as we did, it was great."

Dreifort, notes longtime Wichita State Coach Gene Stephenson, "was as good as there ever was playing college baseball." His agent, Scott Boras, once called Dreifort "the best college pitcher I've ever seen" and Stephenson envisioned a "franchise player" who would "set the tone for the Dodgers for a long time."

Some, then-Mariners manager Lou Piniella reportedly among them, whispered that Seattle should have drafted the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dreifort instead of A-Rod.

With the Dodgers, however, Dreifort's body repeatedly betrayed him, resulting in injuries and surgeries almost too numerous to count, among them two elbow reconstructions.

In 113 starts and 161 other appearances, he compiled a 48-60 record and notched 11 saves. Twice he sat out entire seasons. Almost never, he says, was he completely sound.

Still, the Dodgers gave him that mammoth contract before the 2001 season. It made him a target of fan frustration.

"The people that know me are the ones that really matter," Dreifort says. "They're the ones that know who I am and how hard I worked. Rehabbing all that time was brutal, but I did it. It just didn't work out, but it wasn't for lack of effort."

These days, Dreifort appears to be in peak condition, dressed for an interview in shorts, a tight T-shirt and running shoes. He notes, however, that he experiences almost constant pain.

"I'm doing nothing," he says on the eve of his most recent visit to the operating room, "and I'm still having surgery."

Nevertheless, he regularly fantasizes about a comeback.

"But then I wake up the next day," he says, "and feel like I've been run over by a train -- and I'm glad I'm retired."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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