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SPORTS : Melendez Can Only Watch, Wait and Wish : Baseball: Past season and a half have brought nothing but bad luck for first baseman, who remains hopeful of resurrecting his professional career.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The summer of 1994 should have found Dan Melendez playing first base in the Dodgers’ minor league system, honing his skills as the projected heir apparent to Eric Karros.

Or so Melendez thought.

In reality, the former St. Bernard High and Pepperdine standout has been working out at the Culver City Babe Ruth field in an attempt to recapture his skills and block out the frustration of another baseball season dashed by an injury.

Elbow surgery wiped out the current campaign. Last year, a wrist injury kept him off the field for the second half of the season.

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Melendez, 23, tries to maintain a positive outlook. He points out that he is young and strong enough, both physically and mentally, to regain his form. But the fact that he hasn’t played in a regular-season game for more than a year is a sobering slap in the face.

“It’s a nightmare, actually,” he said.

A second-round draft pick in 1992, Melendez signed with the Dodgers for $160,000 after helping Pepperdine win its first national championship in baseball. He bypassed the rookie league and spent his first pro season at Bakersfield playing for the Dodgers’ Class-A team. He was promoted to the double-A team in San Antonio in 1993 and got off to a strong start, ranking among team leaders in home runs and runs batted in.

Everything, it seemed, pointed to Melendez fulfilling the promise he had displayed at St. Bernard, where he set 14 school hitting and pitching records and was named The Times’ 1989 South Bay Player of the Year. He was drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Orioles out of high school.

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“I was on a fast pace,” Melendez said. “It was almost too good.”

Too good, indeed. His steady climb up the Dodgers’ ladder came to an abrupt halt in June, 1993, when he suffered a sprained wrist diving for a ball. With that, Melendez’s luck went south.

He returned to spring training in good shape, but another freak injury would soon take him out of the lineup, a situation he wasn’t used to.

“Growing up I was never injured,” he said. “I don’t think I ever missed a game.”

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Bob Yarnall, who coached Melendez for four years at St. Bernard, said: “He was a true iron man in high school.”

Now, the 6-foot-4 Melendez is trying to avoid the “injury-prone” tag.

“I’ve just been through some hard times so far,” he said.

Strange days may be a more accurate description of his most recent injury. After all, it isn’t often that a first baseman undergoes a surgical procedure usually performed on arm-weary pitchers.

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“It’s weird,” Melendez said. “A lot of pitchers have it done, but I had to do it on my non-throwing arm.”

That would be the right arm, the one Melendez extended across the base line trying to catch a wide throw from second baseman Chris Demetral in a spring training game against the Montreal Expos last April in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“I thought the (runner) would veer off, but he came straight through the bag,” Melendez said.

The force of the collision snapped the medial collateral ligament in Melendez’s right elbow. Dr. Frank Jobe, the well-known sports orthopedist, performed the surgery in which Melendez’s elbow ligament was replaced by a tendon taken from his right wrist.

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“The (wrist) tendon is not essential, but I had to rehab it,” Melendez said. “The wrist is fine. The elbow will tighten up. I have to ice it and stretch it out.”

All things considered, though, Melendez has made encouraging progress. He is ahead of schedule in his recovery and plans to participate next month in an instructional league in Scottsdale, Ariz. After that, he plans to play winter ball.

“The therapy has gone well,” he said. “I’ve been getting stronger with weightlifting.”

Melendez, who weighs 205 pounds (about 15 pounds more than he did at Pepperdine), knows he needs more than increased strength to regain his form on the baseball field. That’s why he is regularly working out with friends near his parents’ home in West Los Angeles, where he still lives.

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But he knows that taking batting practice and fielding ground balls can only do so much.

“You need to play games,” he said. "(The layoff) has hurt me, just in terms of playing experience. Not having seen pitching in a while, it will take time to get back to normal. And just everyday decision-making. You never forget it, but you get rusty.”

Yarnall, the St. Bernard coach, says if anyone can overcome back-to-back injuries, it’s Melendez.

“It’s real frustrating simply because he was one of those can’t-miss prospects as far as hitting goes,” Yarnall said. “To have two freak-type accidents happen to him two years in a row is heartbreaking.

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“But knowing the type of person Danny is, his work ethic and determination, I don’t think he’ll have a problem coming back.”

Yarnall rates Melendez and Royce Clayton, now the starting shortstop for the San Francisco Giants, as the best players he has coached. Clayton graduated from St. Bernard in 1988, a year before Melendez, and the two players remain close. During his layoff, Melendez visited Clayton in San Francisco and took in some Giants games.

“He helped me through these times,” Melendez said of Clayton, who was a first-round draft pick out of high school. “He talked to me about hitting and about Barry Bonds, his approach to the game, and playing every day.”

By staying focused and working hard, Melendez hopes to revive the smooth, left-handed swing that made him a dangerous hitter in high school and college, and was beginning to blossom with the Dodgers before injuries sidetracked him. As a senior at St. Bernard, he batted .539 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 26 games.

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“Danny is by far the best hitter I ever had,” Yarnall said. “He had amazing bat control. Whenever he would come up to me and tell me, ‘This ball is out of here,’ 100% of the time he would hit a home run. He didn’t say it all the time, but when he did, it was a home run. I used to tell him, ‘You should say it more often.’ ”

His time away from the game has made Melendez realize how much baseball means to him. His dream of reaching the big leagues is stronger than ever.

“Now when I get there,” he said, “I’ll appreciate it even more.”

If he does make it, one thing is certain: He’ll never wish for a day off again.

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