For Once, Gibson Is Holding Back : Dodgers: 1988 MVP recovering from unusual surgery by working hard in Michigan, but he isn't testing his leg completely yet. Life without baseball doesn't scare him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It takes one hour 10 minutes. Kirk Gibson knows the drive well. He says it is the same whether it is snowing or sleeting or so cold his beard stubble freezes on the way to the pickup truck. It is the same whether he has a cold or the flu or a bad case--highly contagious this time of year--of wanting to take a nap in front of the fireplace.

Three times a week this winter, Gibson spends one hour 10 minutes traveling from his farmhouse north of Detroit to East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. Waiting for him is an empty gym with an overstuffed challenge.

In silence, Gibson stretches. He rides a stationary bike. He runs. He sticks his bad left hamstring under the strain of a Cybex machine. He runs. He fits the rest of his body under a weight machine. He runs. After 4 1/2 hours in solitary, he climbs back in his truck and hopes to get home before the roads freeze.

Some may think the worst part is how it begins, at 7 a.m., with Gibson searching for a fresh pair of sweat pants, then stumbling outside to warm up the truck.

Gibson says no. The worst part of the process is that he has no idea how it will end.

"I know I have never worked harder during a winter in my life," Gibson said, "But what the end result will be, I don't know. I honestly don't know."

Despite his best efforts, the Dodger outfielder said he is uncertain if he will fully recover from the tricky operation last Aug. 29 that repaired a torn hamstring in a tendon just below his left knee.

It is a month before the start of spring training, and Gibson's leg is not yet strong enough to be baseball-tested. He might not pick up a ball until the beginning of drills next month. He will probably not attempt to play a full game until the end of spring training, if that soon.

His progress has been such that he only began to simulate baserunning for the first time Tuesday.

"I ran from first to second three times and then I said, ' easy ,' " said Gibson, the National League's most valuable player two years ago, in a phone conversation earlier this week. "It felt good, but I didn't want to rush it. I haven't run in five months; I'm not going to be a madman."

Gibson said there is no pain. But because he tried to play with the injury last year and batted a career-low .213 in 71 games, there is caution. And because the injury was unique--Dr. Frank Jobe, Dodger medical director, had never seen a hamstring tear in that tendon area--there will be no pushing into the unknown.

"Time, and only time, will tell what happens to me," Gibson said. "I'm not going to consider myself back until I can help the team on a consistent basis. And who knows if I can? Nobody has that answer right now. I'd be God if I told you I knew."

Jobe says Gibson's attitude is a wise one.

"Because we've never seen an injury quite like this, it would be pushing to try to know something early," Jobe said. "If he decides he wants to go through spring training without trying to demonstrate his superior ability, that wouldn't make me mad.

"Actually, because of when he had the surgery, it should just have healed solid by the start of the season. We probably won't have our answer until then."

But Gibson, who will become a free agent at the end of this season, said he is not waiting that long to develop contingency plans. In keeping with his black-and-white view of his world, he calls them Plans A, B and C.

"Plan A, I'm totally healthy on a consistent basis. That's what I really want," he explained. "We won't know that until we get into the season.

"Plan B, I'm partially healthy, so you go figure out what happens then. I mean, I don't think the Dodgers are going to want to pay me to be a pinch-hitter."

In other words, Gibson, 32, would try to move to the American League as a designated hitter, either by asking for a trade before the end of the season or by playing out his contract. He was told that if that should be the case, rumors would soon be circulating of his return to Detroit to be united with former football foe Bo Schembechler, the Tigers' new president.

The former Michigan State football star laughed.

"I can't tell you how much I admire and respect Bo," he said. "And who knows what is going to happen?"

Then there is Plan C. "That comes into play if I don't get any better, and they kick me out of the game entirely," he said. "I just retire. And, hey, man, I'm not married to the game. I could handle retirement."

When he has not been working out this winter, he has been working for his successful real estate development company. Friends say he is just as obsessed with that as with baseball, doing everything from personally checking the wiring and plumbing in buildings to selling the leases on those buildings.

"I'm in a position where I can take care of myself and my family after baseball," Gibson said. "Life goes on, and we have to go on with it."

The Dodgers' plan, of course, is for Gibson to be starting somewhere in the outfield on opening day. But they, too, are treading lightly. Witness the recent free-agent signing of outfielder Hubie Brooks.

"Kirk is the only one who can truly tell us how he feels, and we will bring him along at a pace for which he feels comfortable," Dodger Vice President Fred Claire said. "We know what he can do; we aren't going to make him show us in spring training."

Said Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda: "I believe he's coming back, but do I know? No. So I just want him to take his time. A veteran with his background, he knows what he has to do."

The Dodgers' patience has been strengthened by the news that outfielder Kal Daniels has recovered so well from his Aug. 21 arthroscopic surgery that he was recently playing basketball. Well, maybe they weren't thrilled.

"I told Kal that he was too short to be playing hoops, and the Lakers had all the help they needed," Claire said. "I think he got the message."

Protested Daniels from his home in Warner Robins, Ga.: "Hey, I'm fine. I'm able to do everything now. I'm running sprints up hills, working out five days a week. I'm ready."

Even if Gibson is fully recuperated, Daniels believes he will be in the lineup.

"I have to figure they will make a move in the infield somewhere," he said, referring to a possible trade of third baseman Jeff Hamilton, with Brooks moving to third base. "I don't think they traded for me not to play me."

Gibson said he wishes he could be as cheerful. But although arthroscopic knee surgery is seemingly performed every 10 seconds in this country, Gibson's hamstring tear was one that forced Jobe to dust off his textbooks.

"It was very, very unusual," Jobe explained. "In almost all cases, the hamstring simply tears in the muscle. His tore in the tendon. We've never seen that before. He must have hit something very hard or played very hard for that to happen."

By all accounts, Gibson is working just as hard to fix it. His agent, Doug Baldwin, made a pre-Christmas visit to Gibson's home in hopes of sharing a little holiday cheer. What he and Gibson actually shared was the cold front seat of the truck.

"First day I'm there, we're up at about dawn, piling into his truck and making that long drive to Michigan State," Baldwin related. "It's cold and snowy, and then when we get to the gym, there's not a soul in sight. I end up following him through his workout the whole morning, and it's like he has tunnel vision. He doesn't see or think or talk about anything but his workout.

"This is the first time he's had surgery on his bread and butter--his legs--and I really think that has him obsessed."

Said Gibson: "Basically, I can't be stopped. When it's snowing and I'm sick, it would be so easy to mess around and stay home . . . But when I'm sick is when I work harder. I do extra weights, to help tell myself I'm OK. It's fun. It's part of the challenge."

His love of challenges, according to Gibson, is what has made him stay in baseball this long.

"'What is keeping me around is the competition," Gibson said. "I love it. I got to have it.

"I don't need any more personal achievements. . . . I just want to win. That's my reward. That's why I'm putting myself through all this. More W's."

He has earned many of those, the best of which were helped by his dramatic home runs in the 1984 and '88 World Series. Kirk Gibson only wishes a victory over his left leg would be as easy.

Dodger Notes

Although the Dodgers have five players eligible for arbitration, and those still unsigned by Tuesday's deadline will file to protect themselves, all five will probably sign before their cases reach an arbitrator. The most likely to have problems with management, Kal Daniels, is coming off an injury-plagued year that has sufficiently confused his case so neither his agent, Lou Oppenheim, nor the Dodgers would want to test an arbitrator. "If we go, it would be a crapshoot, and I think they feel the same way," Oppenheim said. "Both sides are probably too insecure about their positions to want to risk it to an arbitrator."

Daniels followed three seasons of a .291 average or better with a .246 average in 55 games with Cincinnati and the Dodgers. Daniels, whose $325,000 salary last season was determined by a coin flip between him and owner Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds, will probably settle more quietly this time. Other Dodgers eligible for arbitration are third baseman Jeff Hamilton, catcher Rick Dempsey, utility player Franklin Stubbs and pitcher Ray Searage.

The Dodgers' biggest contract problem will probably occur this spring with pitcher Tim Belcher, who is not eligible for arbitration. Because he couldn't come to agreement with the club last season, he was automatically renewed for $225,000. Earlier this winter, Belcher said he expects the same problem this year.

Ignore any trade rumors involving Hubie Brooks. Claire confirmed that a little-known clause in the basic agreement between management and the union prevents teams from trading their newly signed free agents until the following June.

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