ARMED, BUT STILL DANGEROUS? : Setback for Dodgers' Top Pick

Special to The Times

He's $160,000 richer and a little tired of a baseball world that has largely written him off.

Dan Opperman, the Dodgers' first-round pick in the spring free-agent draft, is recuperating from surgery for a frayed ligament in his right elbow. The right-hander says he'll be on the mound next spring, and he has a bit of advice for those skeptics who think he's less a pitcher than the one scouts once drooled over.

"If they want to write me off, let them do it," Opperman said. " 'Cause I'll just put it back in their face when I come back."

With his right arm?

The Dodgers gambled and picked Opperman, eighth overall in the June draft, knowing that he had experienced a sharp pain in his elbow while pitching his last high school game. Before then, Opperman had been high on every team's list.

"It was very tough for me to pass him up," Baltimore Orioles scout Ed Crosby said. "I've been wanting him for two or three years."

Before the draft, the 6-foot 2-inch, 175-pound Opperman had his arm checked by his physical therapist, an orthopedic surgeon and the Dodgers' own Dr. Frank Jobe. The Dodgers were the only team that actually examined his injury.

Other teams, such as the Orioles and Atlanta Braves, relied on a four-page written report by Keith Kleven, Opperman's physical therapist. Kleven's report said, basically, that there was tenderness but no numbness around the elbow.

Kleven said that Opperman had great physical talents, with potential for major league pitching, but needed supervision with his muscular-skeletal development. The letter was sent to all 26 major league teams.

The Dodgers asked Opperman to fly to Los Angeles on his own, so that Jobe could look over the elbow. According to Ben Wade, the club's director of scouting, Jobe told him, in front of Dodger Vice President Fred Claire, that Opperman was fine.

"What would you have done if your doctor told you the kid was fine?" Wade asked. "I had no other choice but to sign him. I would have looked like a damn fool if I would have passed him and he turned up with no injury."

Asked if he thinks he looks foolish now, in the wake of Opperman's surgery, Wade said: "I don't care what anyone has to say about me. I haven't had an enemy in this game in 15 years. Now they seem to be popping up all over the place."

In any event, after drafting Opperman, the Dodgers signed him for $160,000 and sent him to Great Falls, Mont., their farm team in the rookie Pioneer League. Three hours off the plane, Opperman was warming up when he grabbed his elbow and told pitching coach Jim Brewer that he felt a sharp pain. Brewer told him to take a few days' rest and try again.

Three days later, the pain remained.

Three weeks after that, on July 17, he underwent surgery. Jobe found that Opperman's medial collateral ligament, the main stabilizing ligament from bone to bone, was worn thin.

"(Jobe) said there was a few fibers holding on to (the ulna, the main bone in the forearm)," Opperman said. "But he said it was pretty much useless. There was no chance it was going to heal."

Much in the manner of the operation Jobe pioneered with Tommy John, the ligament was repaired by taking tendons from Opperman's left wrist and using them to rebuild the worn out ligaments in his right elbow.

Kleven said there was really no way to have foreseen the seriousness of to Opperman's injury.

"You really can't tell until you get in there," Kleven said. "Dr. Jobe is one of the best, maybe in the top five in the country, but even he at his best clinical judgment, cannot make a definitive diagnosis without getting in there arthroscopically."

Jobe could not be reached for comment.

According to Baltimore's Crosby, the uncertainty of Opperman's elbow was enough for him to advise his team to pass. He was not surprised that the Dodgers drafted him, but said it was a gamble.

"It wasn't a stupid gamble," said Crosby. "It was just . . . a gamble."

Scouting Director Paul Snyder of the Atlanta Braves said that Opperman's elbow "was a consideration" in passing him and drafting Georgia pitcher Derek Lilliquist instead.

If it hadn't been for the injury, Snyder said, the Braves, who had the sixth pick, "wouldn't have seen him. He would have been drafted by then."

The Minnesota Twins, who picked third, and the Chicago Cubs, who picked fourth, would not comment on Opperman, citing team policy.

Opperman said, however, that the Cubs had him throw for them about a week before the draft but that they appeared dissatisfied with his velocity, which was in the low 80s. The pitcher said he was under instructions from Kleven not to "let loose" and refused to throw any harder.

"They asked me to throw for them when I really didn't have to," Opperman said. "I was under directions not to. Besides, the Cubs scouts had seen me since I was a freshman."

The Dodgers, though, remained high on the young man many compare to Bob Welch. Dodger scout Gib Bodet, who had watched Opperman since he was a freshman, encouraged his drafting.

"Based on (Jobe's) exam, plus the fact there was no getting around he was an outstanding prospect, we selected him." Bodet said. "We did the best we could. The doctor did the best he could. The boy is hoping he comes out of it all right. All the reports we have are encouraging."

Said Wade: "I didn't think he'd be there when we drafted him. And it's not over with yet. All we can do is wait and find out. If I had a chance to take this kid again, I'd do it."

A restless Opperman is undergoing therapy, has been meeting with Jobe, and insists that he will be at spring training next March.

"I'll be back and move right through the organization," said Opperman, who had a 25-1 record in four years of high school baseball. (The arm) will be built up to where it used to be."

Where it used to be, was a fastball somewhere in the low 90s on the radar gun. Scouts noticed Opperman as a freshman when they were scouting his Valley teammate Greg Maddux, now with the Cubs' organization.

"This boy was further along (than Maddux when he was in ninth grade)," Bodet said. "He had a better arm. He had better stuff."

Opperman's success in high school got him to the Olympic Festival last summer and to the World Junior Championships, where he pitched sparingly and played the outfield.

The outfield was foreign to Opperman, since he had played the infield in high school games he wasn't pitching. So successful was Opperman at third base and shortstop that both Bodet and Wade said he was drafted as a two-way player.

"If he was drafted only as a third baseman, I think he would have gone in the third or fourth round," Bodet said."

But the Dodgers want Opperman to pitch. They like his fastball, his curve, his smooth delivery. Bodet said he is one of the best pitching prospects he has ever seen.

The comparison of Opperman to Welch, both in looks and pitching style, may someday extend further.

Welch, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 1977, pitched only seven innings that season for Eastern Michigan University because of an arm injury. Wade gambled and took him anyway, as the 20th pick overall.

A year later, Welch was pitching in Los Angeles.

Can Opperman follow a similar path?

"It's too early to judge at this point," Claire said. "He did have the operation and obviously that is not good. But he needs to be given a chance to get healthy before we make any judgments on him."

Others are ready to bet the farm. Dan's father, Frank, is one of them.

"You just tell those people back in Los Angeles that if my son says he's going to pitch again, then he's going to pitch again," he said.

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