Erickson not kidding around

Pitching: Veteran Scott Erickson, finally recovered from elbow surgery, has taken over the leadership role on a staff young in the tooth.

March 31, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When Scott Erickson arrived at spring training, the last thing he wanted was special attention.

Sure, it had been 18 months since his major reconstructive elbow surgery. Sure, the Orioles were trying to find out if he could be their Opening Day starter. Sure, everyone was curious how he and that elbow felt on a daily basis.

Erickson wouldn't have it. He asked that people treat him like any other pitcher on the roster, and he asked that "in no uncertain terms," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley.

But Erickson was different.

That scar on his right elbow aside, Erickson was now the Orioles' undisputed ace. Early in camp, when the pitchers were doing a simple fielding drill, Erickson stopped everyone cold by barking, "If you're going to do it, do it right!"

This man, once named to People magazine's list of 50 most beautiful people, was threatening to turn ugly.

"He's had that attitude the whole spring," Wiley said. "And he's done that a couple times, in a couple different instances. He's showing people how to compete and how to work. He's showing them things that are important if you want to be successful."

With veteran pitcher Pat Hentgen recovering from the same surgery, Erickson is trying to lead a starting pitching staff that features no one else older than 28.

Erickson, 34, felt he had always been a leader by example, but realized it was time to start speaking up because Jason Johnson (28), Sidney Ponson (25), Josh Towers (25), Calvin Maduro (27) and the rest of the Orioles' young pitchers were listening.

"It's part of the baseball family tradition of older guys helping out the younger guys," Erickson said. "It's just the way baseball's always been. When a rookie comes up and makes the team, it's pretty customary for the older guys to come up and buy him a beer.

"That's just the way I was brought up in Minnesota, and I try to help out the same way and try to pass it along."

Apparently, the other pitchers appreciate it. Johnson said Erickson's assertive ways have caught the staff's attention.

"You watch the guy every day, and he works harder than anybody on the staff," Johnson said. "And it makes us younger guys want to do the same. He is the ace of the staff. He's what all of us younger guys are going to look up to, and I have no doubt he can fill that role."

Now, leadership is well and good, but how well can the post-surgery Erickson pitch? After averaging 231 innings a season between 1996 and 1999, how many innings does his arm have left?

If this spring was any indication, the Orioles will like the answers to those questions. He was 3-0 with a 2.92 ERA in 24 2/3 innings before allowing six runs in 5 2/3 innings in his final spring outing.

Late last season, Wiley told Erickson not to be discouraged if he returned to spring training and didn't see the same, old life on his fastball - at least, at first. But the radar guns behind home plate have shown Erickson's fastball consistently traveling at 90 to 93 mph.

"He came into camp, and he was throwing pretty good," Wiley said. "I mean, he got into games, and I was really pleasantly surprised. I knew he would compete, and I knew he could do a good job, but I didn't think he'd be quite to the point he's at right now."

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove certainly hasn't showed signs of going easy on Erickson, who has ranked with the American League leaders in innings pitched all spring.

And once the season starts, Hargrove doesn't plan to ease up unless he has to.

"We'll see where he's at, and see how he goes from start to start, and it may be that Scott ends up throwing 200 to 225 innings," Hargrove said. "I don't want to limit him artificially. But we certainly want to keep him healthy all year long. If that means he throws seven innings and that's it, then that's what we'll do."

Late last season, Erickson promised Hargrove he'd be ready to be the Opening Day starter. Whatever changes the Tommy John surgery had made on Erickson's elbow, it hadn't changed his confidence.

The procedure is named after Tommy John because he was the first major-leaguer to have it in 1974. Anaheim Angels team doctor Lewis Yocum performed the procedure on Erickson in August 2000, taking a tendon from Erickson's left forearm and using it to reconstruct the medial collateral ligament in Erickson's right elbow.

The person who seemed the least scared was Erickson.

"This isn't a new procedure they just figured out," Erickson said. "A lot of guys have had this. This isn't groundbreaking. Plenty of guys have come back from this very healthy. And, hopefully, I'm going to be able to do the same thing."

Besides John, other pitchers who have successfully come back from the procedure include Matt Morris of the St. Louis Cardinals, John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves and Billy Koch, now the closer for the Oakland Athletics.

"Everybody came back throwing harder," Erickson said. "Only 5 percent don't. I knew that going into it, and that was my guiding line for my rehab. I knew it would all be worth it in the end."

The first reward came from Hargrove, who gave Erickson the chance to make his third career Opening Day start and first since the Minnesota Twins traded him to the Orioles in 1995.

"It's always nice to have the manager have enough confidence in you that you're the one he wants out there for the first game of the season," Erickson said. "But the goal is not pitching the first game, it's winning the first game."

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