Hundley Still Has the Scars From Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Todd Hundley suffered in silence, something uncommon among the high-maintenance Dodgers last season.

That group typically blasted team officials for slights real and imagined, proving money doesn't buy harmony. Or success.

Then there's Hundley.

The maligned catcher kept his mouth shut while being criticized for his poor performance, the decline of the pitching staff and not being Mike Piazza. Or Charles Johnson for that matter.

Hundley didn't offer excuses, shouldering much of the blame for the Dodgers' disappointing season. And he had reason to complain.

The organization put Hundley in an untenable position, making him the opening-day catcher when he should have been rehabilitating from 1997 reconstructive elbow surgery. General Manager Kevin Malone traded Johnson, a multiple Gold Glove award winner, and switch-hitting outfielder Roger Cedeno in a three-team trade in December '98 to acquire Hundley despite team physician Frank Jobe's concern about his elbow.

Sure enough, Hundley was overwhelmed behind the plate and overpowered at it, becoming the fans' No. 1 target.

Driven by unpleasant memories, Hundley completed an intense off-season exercise program. He reported to spring training in the best shape of his career and determined to rebound.

His exhibition-season results were mixed, but the Dodgers are encouraged because Hundley said he hasn't experienced pain in his elbow or hand.

The real test starts tonight.

The club opens the season against the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium, and much is riding on how Hundley fares.

Hundley will be a free agent after the season--the Dodgers quietly bought out his contract option--and management plans to give the job to Angel Pena in 2001.

As for what Hundley endured, he said he doesn't hold grudges. He's focused on the present and future because looking back won't help.

"I'm not angry at anyone," Hundley said. "There is a little bit of wanting to prove people wrong, just a little bit of that, but it's more about just wanting to play the game. The bottom line is getting back and enjoying the game because I didn't have any fun at all last year.

"I want to get back to where I feel confident enough to compete at this level. I put a lot of time in this winter to feel that way again, and I believe I can, but it's about proving it to myself."

Hundley was exhausted physically and mentally after struggling more than he imagined possible.

He hit .207, striking out 113 times in 376 at-bats. Hundley did provide power, with 24 home runs and 55 runs batted in.

Again, though, more was expected from the guy who hit 41 homers in 1996, setting the single-season record for catchers. And Hundley threw out only 23 of 129 (18%) baserunners while struggling because of elbow and hand pain related to the surgery.

He even had problems throwing balls back to pitchers.

Moreover, pitchers rushed their deliveries to compensate for Hundley's problems, creating headaches of their own. Club officials grossly underestimated the effect of Johnson's departure on the young staff, scouts said.

Earned-run averages rose, pitchers' confidence sank and the Dodgers' supposed strength became a weakness.

"I was still injured," Hundley said, acknowledging what many suspected but the Dodgers denied. "I mean, I couldn't even feel my hand sometimes.

"Physically it [his elbow] was injured, and mentally it was just so draining. Not knowing, not having that confidence, that my arm would be OK was a bad place to be mentally.

"If I was a first baseman it wouldn't have been a big problem, but you can't hide it [with] how much you have to throw catching. It's just part of the job. There's nothing you can do."

What about rehabilitating?

"I'm a baseball player," Hundley said, "and it's time to play ball when the summer comes.

"Obviously, I didn't play well. I was hurt and it was tough, but the bottom line is I'm paid to play baseball. That's what I really felt I needed to do at the time. I told Davey and Kevin that, obviously looking back, I wouldn't do it that way again.

"But in the heat of battle, and at that time of the year, I can't say I have any regrets about doing it. None at all."

Malone acknowledges that Jobe, who in 1974 pioneered the reconstructive procedure Hundley underwent, expressed reservations about acquiring Hundley.

Jobe declined comment, but a baseball official said Jobe had doubts about Hundley's elbow after the procedure.

"The doctor who did the procedure comes from a different school [of thought]," Malone said. "He ties it [the ligament] one way and Dr. Jobe ties it a different way. So it wasn't that Dr. Jobe was on a different page, we were on the same page, it was a difference in . . . how it [the surgery] was done."

In fairness to Malone, many within the organization encouraged him to make the Hundley deal, including other top officials who were dissatisfied with Johnson and Cedeno.

Hundley and the Dodgers want to turn the page.

During the off-season, he exercised three hours a day, six days a week with Todd Clausen, strength and conditioning coach. Physical therapist Pat Screnar and trainer Stan Johnston also designed a throwing program to increase Hundley's arm strength.

"From the start, he decided he wanted to give himself every opportunity to have a good season, so he really worked hard," Clausen said. "Todd never tried to compromise with me. If I said we had to run 20 hills, he didn't say, 'OK, can we do 10?' He never tried to cheat."

Hundley hit .239 with three homers and five RBIs in Grapefruit League play and threw out only two of thirteen baserunners.

He said judge him starting tonight.

"I wanted to just get out and play last year, but I found out you can't do that," Hundley said. "You can't take time off [after surgery] and just play. The game just isn't like that."

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