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Injury Changes the Face of a Team

Sometimes, when they’re so good they defy all that has come before them, the game seems to protect itself.

Sandy Koufax.

Eric Gagne.

When they’re Dodgers, and when these Dodgers change the course of the franchise, or try, it takes them out at the elbow.

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Koufax was done at 30, in the Hall of Fame at 36, and reading about the first ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery at 38.

Now Gagne, born two years after Dr. Frank Jobe first ran a scalpel over Tommy John, is going on his third elbow ligament in eight years.

On Tuesday the Dodgers put the words to the fears, that 160 saves over a little more than three years would end in more surgery, and more recovery, and more rehabilitation, and a lot of uncovered leads.

“It’s a year,” Manager Jim Tracy said, and that’s that.

Season over.

We got three years, and maybe that’s all. We got eight-inning wins and one-inning parties. And while Gagne waited for the rest of the franchise to become anywhere near as capable, his elbow went, and so he’s blown nearly as many ligaments in his life (two) as he has save opportunities (six).

The organization wore a hard, sad expression on Tuesday. Gagne was what made them all special, even when they were mediocre. He was what made them contenders, even as they fell to the middle of the division.

As they’d just taken to opening their eyes every morning hoping for good news -- an at-bat out of Milton Bradley perhaps, a start out of Odalis Perez, a double out of Jayson Werth -- the worst came in a telephone call from Jobe himself.

“It hurts,” Jeff Kent said. “It hurts because of who he is.”

In a sport in which the games pile up so fast perspective can hardly keep up, Gagne kept the bullpen grounded, which in turn settled the pitching staff, which kept the Dodgers competitive. Most years. San Francisco had Bonds. New York had Jeter. Chicago had Sosa.

Los Angeles had Gagne, and the strain of getting to him, and the thrill of handing him the baseball. And then it wasn’t only the blue-faced guys in the bleachers who refused to believe otherwise. When he pitched awkwardly in March, the Dodgers gave him more innings anyway. When his fastball died, the Dodgers told themselves it would rise again, and Gagne reassured himself with changeups.

That time is gone, for at least a year, as Gagne joins a handful of big-league pitchers to re-Tommy John. He said he’d be back in 11 months.

Maybe.

He recovered from Tommy John I to throw fastballs that approached 100 mph, to huff and puff and pitch as long and hard as he could, then start over the next day. Brilliance can have a Joe Hardy lifespan, a Sandy Koufax sparkle, a Gagne flash.

The trick is in sustaining it, against the innings and misfortune and occasional ligament defect. And then you’ve got to say goodbye for a year, a season pulled straight from Gagne’s prime, from the Dodgers’ intentions to rebuild from the ninth inning down.

“He’s been the backbone of this team,” Kent said.

It is unusual for a pitcher, and a relief pitcher at that, to serve a team as anything more than a pitcher, at least until the postseason. But, Gagne was unusual.

Is unusual.

Trevor Hoffman missed most of the 2003 season because of shoulder surgery. He remembers that year for the knots that no longer cut up his stomach on his drives to the ballpark, free as it was from the pressure of ninth-inning responsibilities. He would rather have pitched. But he could not help but notice the serenity that had replaced the angst, and the way it allowed him to breathe again.

He stood Tuesday in the Padres’ clubhouse and shook his head at Gagne’s misfortune. He hated the way Gagne finished his Padres, but admired the man that did a job they shared.

“He became that organization’s focal point, for everyone,” Hoffman said.

“That whole show-up-in-third, leave-in-the-seventh thing wasn’t happening. People would stick around until the ninth. They had to. Who would leave that?”

Perhaps the game isn’t over. It is in Jobe’s hands for the moment. Then, if the game has taken all it will of Gagne, it will be in his. Tracy remembered sending Darren Dreifort out with the same hopes, the same disappointment.

“It’s the same kind of personality,” Tracy said. “The same kind of human being. The kind that puts the team first. The team first.”

So the Dodgers found what the game has known all along, that sometimes it’s just too good. The franchise suffers. The man suffers.

“Knowing what Eric Gagne means to this organization, what he meant to the success of this organization,” Tracy said, “you feel for both.”


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