No pain, big gain Good health gives Kamieniecki a shot at comeback with O's

Former Yankee in form

Tests help pitcher put game in perspective

March 10, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The right elbow feels good, which means Orioles pitcher Scott Kamieniecki is winning his first battle of the spring. He may not wind up as the fifth starter, but at least he's free again.

Free of the pain and the restrictions. Free to perform his craft.

Kamieniecki, 32, has been operated on twice since the end of the 1995 season, the first time to remove a bone spur, the other to take out two more that doctors had missed. He hasn't appeared in a major-league game since being optioned to the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Columbus on May 26.

Options and operations. These have been Kamieniecki's calling cards.

"Coming back," he says, "is just a matter of throwing and getting some arm strength back. Repetition. Getting back that muscle memory."

And getting back to where he was three years ago, when he posted a 3.76 ERA for the Yankees while avoiding injuries and the minor leagues.

Kamieniecki missed two months of the following season with elbow problems, though he returned to pitch a complete-game victory at Toronto that clinched a wild-card berth. He began last year on the disabled list, appeared in seven games, then went under the knife in July. Without him, the Yankees won the World Series.

This is the kind of luck that has dogged Kamieniecki. He gets the victory in his major-league debut in June 1991, then goes on the disabled list two months later and needs surgery to repair a disk in his neck. Bone spurs develop in his elbow and fragment. Fire breaks out in a house in Flint, Mich., where his baby sitter is watching his two young sons -- the night before he's scheduled to start Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series in Seattle.

Of the three, this is the story that shakes Kamieniecki to his foundation.

"The baby sitter was someplace she wasn't supposed to be," he said. "One-fourth of a section of the house caught fire and it scared the kids because they couldn't get the door open. The alarm went off and the baby sitter was able to get them out. We're 3,000 miles away. She called to say they were OK, but my wife flew home."

Kamieniecki stayed behind, a jumble of emotions, and gave up four runs in five innings.

"You think, 10 or 15 seconds more and you might lose your kids," he said.

These are the times when making a comeback doesn't seem like life and death. Times such as two weeks ago, when his wife needed surgery after doctors found something during a routine physical. Kamieniecki wants the details kept private, but said, "She's home now and everything's fine. But it puts baseball in its proper perspective."

Baseball has returned Kamieniecki to Fort Lauderdale, where the Yankees used to train, where he's trying to regain control of his career. Going into his first spring start today, he's allowed one earned run and five hits in four innings, with two walks and two strikeouts.

"I'm able to do some things I was capable of doing before I had the surgery," he said. "The surgery prevented me from extending my elbow, and as a pitcher, if you can't finish your pitches, then you're not going to be successful."

Pitching coach Ray Miller has been impressed with Kamieniecki's command and his presence on the mound. "He obviously knows what he's doing. He works both sides of the plate, he holds runners. He doesn't say much, but he's a very intelligent guy, very coachable," Miller said.

"He's looked good, solid," said Mike Flanagan, who's in camp as a pitching instructor. "He's very professional. He has good instincts. And I see no indications of any elbow problems."

Soothing words for a player who, last March, said he was throwing "OK, but it just wasn't there."

"Something was wrong," he said. "We thought maybe I would need more work, maybe I was in a slump and wasn't throwing the ball well. I had a stretch of like three or four games where there was nothing there. I was just throwing the ball poorly. The idea was to go down to Columbus, get some work in and get back to where I was. But the more I threw, the worse the spurs got."

The second operation did more than just remove the other fragments. It gave him peace of mind.

"They looked around in there and made sure everything else was fine, which was such a relief because I was thinking maybe there's something else in there," he said. "They checked out ligaments, the whole structure of the elbow, and said, 'No, you're fine. Just take your time and get this healed.'

"My job then was to get ready so I could throw in winter ball and prove to people I was healthy. I took that road."

The Yankees went in another direction. They won a championship, then allowed Kamieniecki to sign elsewhere after 10 years in the organization.

Orioles left-hander Jimmy Key, Kamieniecki's teammate for four seasons, said, "He never really got much of a chance in New York. They'd get him in there for a little while, then they'd yank him out. He never was given a full year to kind of make it or break it. He'd get some starts and, if he didn't do well, he was out of there."

Kamieniecki signed with the Orioles because he saw an opportunity to make the club. And if he doesn't, he's free to accept another offer to pitch in the majors.

"Scott's one of the good people in the game," Key said, "and you'd like to see those kinds of guys do well."

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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