'Game Over' playing the waiting game

Gagne playing the waiting game

LOS ANGELES -- History shows that there is rarely a storybook ending for Dodgers heroes.

Duke Snider was sold to the Mets. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale broke down in their early 30s and retired. Don Sutton, Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser left as free agents, with Sutton and Hershiser returning for farewells as 40-somethings. Fernando Valenzuela was released. Mike Piazza was traded to Florida.

Now, what becomes of closer Eric Gagne, the most popular Dodger since Piazza and Fernando?

Or is it Eric Gagne, former Dodger? Is it game over for Game Over?

Nobody seems to know, including the people responsible for deciding, and that includes Gagne himself. After missing much of the past two seasons following two elbow operations and one on his back, he reports feeling "unbelievably good." He began throwing Tuesday and vows a healthy return.

"I'm just focusing on getting healthy and getting back to the mound," Gagne said over the Thanksgiving weekend. "I'm focusing on that and nothing else. I'm anxious to know if I'll be in L.A. or not. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know their direction. A lot of the decision is up to the Dodgers. They've signed some good guys the past two years, and they're going in the right direction. But I don't know if I'm in their plans or not."

The person who makes those plans, general manager Ned Colletti, doesn't seem to know either, or if he does, he isn't saying.

"It's a tough call," Colletti said. "We've talked once or twice, and we'll see what the market is. If we think he can be a help to us, we have to gauge where he's at."

A replacement for Gagne fell into the Dodgers' lap last year when Japanese free agent Takashi Saito, on a $500,000 Minor League contract, passed by everybody in the bullpen to set a franchise record for most saves by a rookie. Saito indicated at season's end that he might go back to play in Japan, but his offseason actions indicate that was merely posturing for contract purposes.

"I don't know if he's coming back. I assume he is," said Colletti, who also has closer-in-training Jonathan Broxton as a fallback. "Kim [Ng, Dodgers vice president] has talked to [Saito's] agent for six or seven weeks. If he wasn't coming back, I'd think we'd have a feel for it. But I thought J.D. Drew was coming back."

For all of the emotional ties Dodgers fans have to the popular Gagne and what he meant to the organization during three of the most unbelievable years a closer has had, Colletti's job is to field a winner now, not to live in the past. As he pieces together a roster, he is making decisions on players with today's facts.

Colletti doesn't know if Gagne will be healthy in April and, more to the point, nobody will know for weeks if Gagne can even throw off a mound. By then, another club might have a higher risk tolerance than the Dodgers, or Colletti could be out of money.

Ah, money. Though Gagne has been a physical wreck in recent years, the way in which other players with a history of injuries (Adam Eaton and Randy Wolf, for instance) have remained desirable makes it reasonable for Gagne to believe there's a team out there that is willing to guarantee him $5 million-$6 million, or some other number he may not get from the Dodgers.

"I've never been in better shape. I'm excited to be able to pitch without pain. My arm feels better than it has in years."
-- Eric Gagne

When last heard from at season's end, Gagne was upbeat about recovering from his back and elbow surgeries, talking about a willingness to accept a hometown discount to return, acknowledging that he'd been "a $10 million cheerleader."

"Nothing's changed," Gagne said. "I'm always going to be a Dodger. I love the McCourts [owners Frank and Jamie]. I feel I have a great relationship with the Dodgers, and I'd love to go back. But I can't control everything. It doesn't mean much unless they want me there. That part is out of my control."

Gagne put together arguably the best three years of any closer in baseball from 2002-04, and the Dodgers showed their appreciation by paying him $19 million for 2005-06. They didn't get much for their money. Gagne saved eight games early in 2005 before heading to the sidelines. Since June 2005, he's pitched two innings and had three operations.

The club bought out its 2007 option for $1 million. Now, Gagne, who turns 31 in January and has earned $25 million in his career, is a free agent. He said he's had offers from other clubs, but the guarantees are low because his health is unknown.

"There are teams that would take a chance on me now," said Gagne, "but from a business decision, I want to show people I'm healthy. That's the best business decision."

Gagne's agent is Scott Boras. Gagne has had his contract renewed when he had no leverage, he has been through salary arbitration (and lost) and he has signed a multi-year contract. He knows about the business side of baseball. He knows why neither the Dodgers, nor anybody else, have backed up the armored truck, considering his health history.

"I've been paid a lot of money the last two years, and I haven't been healthy," he said. "I'm sure if I had been healthy, I'd be in L.A. for sure the next couple of years. But I can't really do anything about it. I got hurt. Now I have to prove to everybody that I'm not hurt and I know I can show I'm fine."

Gagne predicted that in three weeks he would be far enough along in his throwing regimen to show off his arm to interested clubs, even if it means a former Cy Young Award winner trying out for scouts. He's spent the past few months rehabbing his entire body in Arizona with trainers Todd Clausen and Brett Fischer. He said he's changed the workout emphasis from bulking up his upper body and arms to strengthening his core and legs.

"I've never been in better shape," he said. "I'm excited to be able to pitch without pain. My arm feels better than it has in years. For the past two years, there were good days and bad days. Now there are good days and better days. In a perfect world, I'd be back in L.A. the next four or five years. But I've got to deal with what I've got to deal with. I've been hurt. That's the way it is.

"I just have to keep positive and that's easy, because there's no doubt in my mind that I'm finally healthy. I'm not worried about my body holding up. Other people might be worried. I know I have to show people I'm healthy."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.