Dodgers : With New Elbow, Opperman Gets Opportunity

Times Staff Writer

Dan Opperman is scheduled to arrive in town tonight, along with a multitude of other relatively anonymous Dodger minor-league players who will try to prove themselves to Dodger management for future consideration.

But Opperman likely will draw considerable attention, no matter what he does.

"I'm wondering how I'm going to do, and I'm sure a lot of other people are curious, too," Opperman said from his Las Vegas home on Saturday.

The Dodgers, picking eighth, selected Opperman in last summer's draft, even though it was widely known that he had experienced pain in his right elbow during his final game at Las Vegas' Valley High School, where he went 6-1 as a senior. Then, after being signed to a $160,000 bonus and being compared to Bob Welch by some Dodger scouts, Opperman blew out his elbow while warming up before a rookie league game in Great Falls, Mont.

As great falls go, Opperman's came as a sickening thud even before his professional career began. He needed major reconstructive surgery on a frayed elbow ligament, an operation that Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered with Tommy John. A tendon was taken from Opperman's left wrist and grafted to the worn medial collateral ligament in the elbow.

Jobe said the procedure is no longer career-threatening, but it certainly isn't career-enhancing, either.

Now, after an arduous eight-month rehabilitation, Opperman is ready to begin a pitching career that had been deferred for almost a year.

"When he gets here, he'll increase his throwing right away," Jobe said Sunday. "By the time the spring is over, he should be throwing at three-quarter's speed or full speed. We have had people come back and pitch in seven months. Some, it takes 18 months. But the average is about a year."

If that is the case, then Opperman appears ahead of schedule.

"I've started throwing off the mound, and I feel great," Opperman said. "When I get (to Vero Beach), I should be throwing about 80%. Right now, I'm holding back. They won't let me throw full speed yet, but I feel I can without pain."

It isn't known yet, of course, whether Opperman will return to previous form and eventually develop into the quality pitcher that many major league scouts originally predicted. If Opperman doesn't make it back, it apparently won't be for a lack of work.

"I started off my therapy (by) just trying to straighten my arm," Opperman said. "That was tough enough for a while. Then, I started doing small exercises with the elbow in a whirlpool, then light weights, then I hit the weight room. I started playing catch about four months ago. They only let me throw 30 feet, flat-footed. Then, I progressed from there.

"I can't say it hasn't been tough. I've had doubts. But I've kept a positive attitude and I've heard some good things about pitchers that have had this (elbow operation) and pitched again. (St. Louis Cardinal pitcher) Ken Dayley had the thing and he said he picked up a couple miles-per-hour on his fastball after he got back. So, it depends, I guess."

Dodger pitcher Brian Holton had a similar operation in 1983. After missing almost the entire 1984 season, Holton returned the next season. He made 53 appearances with the Dodgers as a reliever and spot starter last season. Holton never had an overpowering fastball, so the operation did not alter his style as much as a power pitcher.

"I was in a game nine months after the surgery," Holton said. "I had gained speed on my fastball, because I had slowly lost it in the few years before that."

Said Jobe: "Almost every pitcher will say to you, 'I'm glad I had it done. I've picked up speed on my fastball.' What most of them really do is go back to the level they had before the injury so, in their minds, they think they've gained something."

Opperman was a power pitcher in high school, and it has yet to be determined whether he has lost any speed on his fastball.

"I'm prepared to learn how to pitch again," Opperman said. "I really don't know what (the Dodgers) have planned for me. They've said I'll probably go back to Great Falls.

"What it really comes down to is that I have to prove something to myself, not necessarily anyone else."

Dodger Notes

The lineup Sunday in the Dodgers' 2-1 win over the Houston Astros included Mike Davis in center field, Mike Marshall in right field, Kirk Gibson in left field, Pedro Guerrero at first base and Jeff Hamilton at third base. John Shelby did not play. Manager Tom Lasorda said Guerrero would not play today against the New York Mets, and that Marshall will play first base. When might Guerrero play third base? "We'll see," Lasorda said. "It's a possibility. "Pete has a lot to do with (the decision) and he seems open to it. Any time you ask a guy to permanently switch positions, you have to ask him." Lasorda may or may not have been joking when he said Guerrero would play in today's "B" game, perhaps at third base. . . . Potential starters aren't the only Dodger players concerned about not getting enough playing time. Mickey Hatcher said that he and other Dodger reserves would like to make more than just cameo appearances each day. "I'm not really mad about it and I'm not making any demands, but I think we (the reserves) need to get ready for the season, too," Hatcher said. "I think we are just as important to the club as anyone else. I don't enjoy sitting for nine innings and maybe getting in a half inning. The only people getting ready now are starters." Dodger reserves probably will receive more playing time starting today, when "B" games begin. There are eight "B" games this spring, plus two split-squad games. "I know it's going to get better, but it's frustrating for us guys sitting there while the starters play nine innings," Hatcher said. "We know what's going on. But sometimes I wish I could just play for the Triple-A team in spring training. It's killing me to sit."

Usually, Fernando Valenzuela's spring outings are studies in wildness. But Sunday, Valenzuela pitched three scoreless innings, striking out five against the Astros. There are reasons for Valenzuela's surprisingly strong spring showing. He now works out, with weights and throwing, during the offseason. He said the tightness he felt in his shoulder last season is gone. "I know I used to have a bad spring," Valenzuela said. "But I feel better this spring. It still isn't important what you do here. It's most important that I feel fine. I've been working on my location." . . . The Houston Astros are looking for a catcher, and the Dodgers started Alex Trevino behind the plate instead of Mike Scioscia on Sunday. A coincidence? Maybe so, but Astros' General Manager Bill Wood said that the Astros are interested in Trevino. But Wood said he has yet to contact Fred Claire, the Dodgers' executive vice president. The Astros are more interested in Milwaukee catcher Bill Schroeder. . . . Marshall, apparently placated, played nine innings in right field Sunday. He had two hits and made a diving catch in the outfield. Marshall said he hasn't been told to start working out at first base, in the event that Pedro Guerrero moves to third base. But Marshall did say that once he settles on a position, he would like to stay there. "I don't think I'd like to split time (between right field and first base) because going back and forth is difficult," Marshall said.

Tim Crews, used again Sunday in a short relief role, earned a save. But if Crews makes the 10-man pitching staff, it likely will be as a set-up man for Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco, assuming Howell's elbow and back are sound. "I've kind of got the hint that, when Jay's ready, I'm back to the set-up man, which is fine with me," Crews said. . . . Hamilton hit a foul ball off his left shin in the seventh inning Sunday and left the game. Dodger trainers said it is above the area of his sprained ankle of last season. . . . Jay Howell, felled by the flu, is scheduled to pitch one inning in a live situation for the first time Tuesday against the Baltimore Orioles. Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski said Howell's right elbow and back are fine. Howell had bone chips removed from his elbow last fall and recently experienced back pain.

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