The Joker Becomes Practical : Padres: Reliever Larry Andersen's continuing injury problems cast a pall over one of baseball's most endearing personalities.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He walks sheepishly into the clubhouse these days, rarely initiating conversation, much less cracking jokes. He dresses quietly, heads to the trainer's room and usually doesn't emerge until the Padres are about to take the field for stretching exercises.

He remains quiet on the bench during games, and afterward he no longer is the life of the party.

Padre reliever Larry Andersen, take away a few aches and pains, certainly looks the same to the casual observer. He still is considered one of the most generous players in baseball with his time and money. He always is there for those who seek his advice.

Yet, this is not the same Larry Andersen his teammates have come to know and treasure.

They keep waiting for Andersen's personality to surface again, only to realize it's buried underneath the rubble of anguish inside him.

Andersen turned 39 Wednesday, but instead of celebrating his birthday with his teammates, he never bothered to tell anyone of the occasion. What did it matter? He hardly was in the mood, anyway.

"I'll celebrate it with my wife in Philadelphia," Andersen said. "But I don't know what we'll do. I mean, who wants to see a bell that's cracked?"

Andersen smiled awkwardly at his joke, saying he should be more grateful that he's a year closer to receiving his pension.

The smile disappeared when he thought again of his own problems. Maybe at his age, spending 22 years alone in the game of baseball, he should be immune to the taunts and cruelty exhibited by fans. Maybe he should be hardened by now, shrugging off the criticism.

Maybe, he says, that's asking the impossible.

"It would be easy to say it doesn't bother me," Andersen said. "That would be the macho thing to say. But it does. It hurts a lot.

"If there's any way I could be out there, pitching right now, I would. Everybody on this club knows that. But you hear people out there saying, 'He finally got his big contract and now he's not producing.'

"I know people have a right to express an opinion, and you have to respect that, but it's not any easier to accept."

Andersen, who signed a two-year, $4.35-million contract with the Padres in 1991 and remains their highest-priced free agent under their new regime, is on the disabled list for the fourth time since joining the Padres. He had a ruptured disk and a herniated disk in his neck that put him on the disabled list twice last season. This year, he opened the year on the DL because of a sore shoulder, and then went on again this week because of a bruised forearm.

The man who was acquired to be the Padres' primary setup man, even helping to save games, has pitched only 2 1/3 innings this season.

And how the fans have painfully reminded him of his idle time.

They boo him at the stadium. They torment him on the talk shows. They mock him in the parking lot.

"I don't understand it," Andersen said. "People don't understand how I feel. They don't know what I'm going through. How would they like to go to work and have the whole office staff telling them they're no good, and they're overpaid? That's what they're doing to me.

"It's almost as if some people feel better about themselves when they see someone who makes more money fail. I think a lot of it's because the media always prints every player's salary. It's like they give reason for people to feel the way they do.

"It's not whether a player does good or bad, anymore, but is he doing good (at) what he's making.

"Money has nothing to do with this. If I could go out there, I'd be there. I was never 100% the whole year last season because of my neck, but I was out there. And I'd be out there this time if they didn't elect to put me on the DL."

Andersen then stopped, and speaking almost in a whisper, said, "But I'm not afraid to face reality, either, and when I've pitched this year, I've struggled.

"I know what people are saying. They look at my age, and wonder if I'm finished. I'm not saying it's not a normal reaction, but I don't believe it.

"I won't say I don't think about it, but I don't worry about it. I know I can still pitch."

Andersen, who sustained the latest injury a week ago when he was struck by a line drive hit by Philadelphia Phillie infielder Mariano Duncan, still doesn't camouflage his own concern. In the few games he has been healthy, he has floundered. He owns a 7.71 ERA in six appearances this season, yielding a .462 batting average.

The days of throwing his slider past every hitter, Andersen concedes, are over. He no longer can rely strictly on his slider, and already has decided that he needs to change his repertoire to be successful.

"It's time for me to make a change," Andersen said. "They're fouling off good sliders that they weren't fouling off the last four years. And the ones that they were popping up before, now are being hit.

"I've always said, 'Why mess with success?' But it's not working, so I've got to fix it."

Andersen's performance the rest of the season, he said, will dictate his future in baseball. This is the final year of his contract, and it's highly unlikely the Padres will exercise the option in his contract at the end of the season, which would pay him $2 million in 1993. Instead, they're expected to pay him a $350,000 buyout, release him, and then decide if they want to re-sign him at a bargain-basement price.

"I'll let the hitters decide whether I'm washed up or not," Andersen said. "If I still think I can get people out, I'll keep on pitching. If not here, somewhere else.

"It's not a question of money at all, but whether I want to keep playing. I think teams out there won't be afraid to give me an opportunity. I'll go the minor-league route and sign a non-roster contract if I have to.

"If I stay healthy, and pitch like I'm capable of, who knows what will happen. I just know it's a long season, and it's far too early for anyone to make judgments now."

Andersen will be eligible to come off of the disabled list in a week. And with Jose Melendez expected to join the starting rotation, Andersen will be needed more than ever. If the Padres (13-15) are to stay in the National League West race, they desperately need him to revert to form.

"We all know how hard it's been for Larry," Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said. "There's not much you can say to him because he feels so bad. It's tearing him up.

"But he'll be back. There's no doubt in our minds. And there shouldn't be in his.

"He's going to be fine, and the people in San Diego will see just how important he is to our team."

Said Andersen: "Believe me, it can't come soon enough."

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