A Prodigal Son Returns a Man : Baseball: Dodgers' Gott had all of the advantages as a child in San Marino. Now he helps others find themselves.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There once was a boy from San Marino who was blessed with an arm that could pitch a baseball hard and seemingly forever.

He was also blessed with parents who could give him the money to develop his gift.

But the were never enough. He wanted more and could only find it in the middle of the night, in strange parties with strange people who only wished they could be him. He abused his gifts and soon he was no longer blessed.

One day, when the boy was finally being paid to play baseball, he partied all night for the last time. His father collected his clothes, put them on the front doorstep and locked the door behind them. The father told the boy to get out, and not come back until he grew up.

Ten years have passed. The boy is now a man, and when he takes the pitching mound for the Dodgers this week against the Cincinnati Reds in the season's most important series to date, there is something he wants everyone to know.

Jim Gott has come back. And he has grown up.

After a year of rehabilitation followed by 26 games of uncertainty, Gott hopes his gift serves him well this week, when, with top reliever Jay Howell injured, the Dodgers might finally give him the ball and their trust with a big game on the line.

"Now that it counts, now that we're in a pennant race, it is a perfect time for my first win or save as a Dodger," Gott said with a smile. "I am right where I want to be."

He is speaking not as one of Howell's setup men, but as a guy who will probably face the division-leading Reds with the game in doubt because Howell is suffering from a sore left knee.

Gott is also not only speaking of how he is reaching the end of his recovery from the elbow surgery he had in May of 1988. After giving up seven runs with three home runs in his first 5 1/3 innings this season, he has yielded only four earned runs and one homer in his last 23 2/3 innings.

When Gott says he is where he wants to be, he is not speaking just of this week in Cincinnati. He is also talking about playing for the Dodgers at 31, as a player with a reputation not merely for success but sincerity.

As the Dodgers learned when Gott signed on as a free agent from the Pittsburgh last winter, he was more than just an eight-year veteran with 47 saves in his previous two seasons. He had become one of baseball's leading citizens, one who donates hours to children in drug rehabilitation centers or homes for the abused. At baseball clinics, in hospitals, in schools, Gott speaks to children about taking nothing for granted, about making the most of their gifts.

Gott is glad to be playing in Los Angeles because it is only there that people can appreciate how much that spoiled brat has changed.

"When I left here, I was a mess," Gott said. "That is the big reason I wanted to come back. I want people to see that you can turn it around."

Jim Gott is different from most major leaguers in that he takes less batting practice now than he did when he was in eighth grade.

Then he began to realize he was the only thing that would keep him from becoming a professional baseball player. Everything else had been supplied. He had the height, the coordination and the three-times-a-week private batting lessons at the Temple City batting cage.

"I would go into Cage 1, against the Sandy Koufax machine, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Gott said. "My dad would bring a video camera and tape my lessons and then I would study them. It was like, 'Do your homework. Do your batting lessons.'

"I had every kind of help money could buy."

Said his father, Van Gott: "I pushed, but only because I wanted him to be as good as he could be. If he could achieve that and still not make any team, fine. But I didn't want him to do less than he could do."

The more Jim Gott felt pushed, the more he pushed back. When the brat inside him began to surface with constant complaining and attempts to skip lessons, his father pushed harder by registering him to play in a Little League in the lower income area of Montebello.

"My dad wanted me to see that everyone wasn't as fortunate as us," Gott said. "He didn't want me to get what he called the San Marino syndrome of kids who miss Little League games because they are going to Europe. So we would drive into these poor areas in our Mercedes and I would play with the rough kids."

Yet, Gott was still too talented, and understood his advantages too well to work any harder than necessary.

"Jim's brother Eric was a golfer, and he was like, if it was Saturday, he wanted to be out working on the course all day," Van Gott said. "Jim, on the other hand, thought Saturdays were good days to get out of working on baseball."

To keep Jim eligible to pitch for San Marino High, where he was voted Class AA player of the year in his senior season, the school's principal summoned him to the office every day.

"He would say he just wanted to give me a piece of fruit," Gott recalled. "But I knew he was keeping tabs on me and keeping me out of trouble."

Even that didn't work.

"I would still cut classes, go to parties, see people using drugs just to fit in," Gott said. "In San Marino, you can get away from reality, and that's what I did. I would blame my father. I would blame everybody."

Said Van Gott: "I would look at Jim, so big and strapping, and think, 'My God, you look like an adult. How can you do things that are so dumb?' He was just slow to mature."

In June of 1977, at 17, Gott was picked in the fourth round of the amateur draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was sent to Calgary for the first of five rocky minor league seasons.

In the winter after his second year, with Jim still showing no responsibility or judgment, his father deposited him on his front porch.

"I had helped him get this job at a lumber yard, and the gentleman called one morning and asked where Jim was," said Van, an electronic manufacturer's representative. "I told him, 'Jim is there, isn't he?' The man said no.

"A couple of days later, when Jim finally came home, I accosted him. I asked him what was going on. He became belligerent. He stormed out.

"I found what stuff he had and put it outside and that was it. It was the only way I could think of to make him stop ruining his great ability."

Gott was sent to live with his brother in Utah--"On top of everything, we even had to pay for his luggage and Greyhound ticket," said his father.

It was in that Mormon environment that Gott finally matured, although it took a near defection to college football to finish the process.

After struggling at Class-A St. Petersburg in 1980, walking 113 in 137 innings, he decided he would quit baseball and play football at Brigham Young University.

He was still young, and, at 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds, he was still strong enough.

"I had it all planned out," he said. "I was going to give it a shot at spring practice and, if good enough, they were going to give me a half-scholarship. It was here that my wife stepped in."

His wife, Clenice, whom he had met in Utah and married after her return from a Mormon mission, told him that he had to stop running.

"She told me I had not given baseball a full shot yet, and that I should give it one last chance," he said. "So I did."

In the summer of 1981 he finished ninth in the Texas League with a 3.44 earned-run average for double-A Arkansas, then led the Mexican winter league in saves and was picked by Toronto in the winter league draft. He has been back to the minor leagues only briefly since.

"And you know what I learned the best part about being a major leaguer was?" said Gott. "I learned that people listen to you. I learned that I could have an effect.

"After going through all this stuff and finally realizing my mistakes, I learned that I was now in an environment where I could help keep people from making the same mistakes. I was so happy."

Since Gott began his intensive community relations work for the San Francisco Giants after being traded to them by Toronto in 1985, many have not believed his contributions.

"He was like, 'Whatever you want me to do, I'll do . . . I'm here to serve,' " said David Craig, the Giants' director of community relations. "Time didn't mean anything to him when it came to dealing with people. And while some guys just do these things for their public image, Jim played it straight from the heart.

"We would do a baseball clinic and, while most guys would run off the field afterward, he would stay and talk to the kids until I had to leave the car and get him so we wouldn't be late for a game."

When Gott was claimed on waivers by Pittsburgh in 1987, he got involved in Pittsburgh's St. Francis Adolescent Chemical Dependency Unit. One day during every home stand, he sat in therapy sessions and offered advice from experience.

"He would talk about growing up in Los Angeles and all of his problems," said Patty Paytas, the Pirates' director of community relations. "He was somebody the kids considered important, and he obviously cared about them."

Gott would invite the program's graduates to visit Three Rivers Stadium as his guests, but Paytas said he offered them something far more important.

"His favorite saying in there was, 'You're good,' " she said. "He would tell them that they weren't bad people, they just made wrong choices. He was real big on believing in yourself and that goodness could come out of anything."

He brought that attitude to the Dodgers, where even before he was activated he was doing public service announcements and scheduling a visit to the Five Acres Boys and Girls Aid Society of Los Angeles, a home for abused children in Altadena.

"It is a blessing to have somebody come in and say, 'This is what I want to do, help me do it,' " said Michelle Fox, the Dodgers' supervisor of community services.

Finally, Gott understands all about blessings.

"The best part about coming home is that I can work with kids who grew up like me, kids from my part of town who have made a mistake, and lend them my experience," Gott said. "I have learned, and I want to give some of that back."

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