After years of pain, Erickson finally making gains

Ex-Oriole is top candidate to be Dodgers' 5th starter


March 24, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- In searching for his fourth big-league team in three seasons, Scott Erickson figured he'd start in Los Angeles, just a quick hour flight from his home near Lake Tahoe.

If that didn't work, he'd expand his wish list from there.

Erickson never had to bring out the Rolodex.

The defending National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who have had recent success with pitching reclamation projects such as Wilson Alvarez and Jose Lima, decided to take a chance on the former Orioles right-hander.

"We have had luck with those kind of players that maybe have lost their way a little bit because of injuries or other things," said Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn.

"Those kind of guys, if they are put in a good environment and given a good chance, they already know how to compete, so usually they find a way to succeed."

Erickson, 37, has been out of the majors for most of the past four seasons and hasn't made 30 or more starts in a year since 1999.

But with his heavy sinker working and his right arm seemingly healthy, signing Erickson to a minor league deal and inviting him to spring training was low risk.

And now he's the Dodgers' leading candidate for their vacant fifth starter's spot.

"There's no doubt I had something to prove to them," Erickson said. "When you aren't in the big leagues, people don't know what you are doing. As far as they know, I didn't play. So I had to basically reintroduce myself to the organization. They didn't expect me to be at the level I was at, I guess."

Erickson has allowed just six earned runs and 14 hits in 20 innings this spring (2.70 ERA) and is proving to the Dodgers that he is injury-free -- finally.

"The big thing with veterans is health. Can you regain arm strength after an injury?" Los Angeles pitcher Derek Lowe said. "And he has. He's worked really hard. He works hard every day, and now he is confident that he is back to where he knows he can compete. Mentally, that's half the challenge."

The comeback trail has become familiar territory for Erickson, once one of the most durable starters in baseball. After signing a five-year extension with the Orioles in the middle of 1998, Erickson saw his solid career spiral downward into a combination of disappointment and pain.

There was the near-5.00 ERA in 1999. Then elbow-ligament surgery in 2000, followed by a full season of rehabilitation. He made 28 starts in 2002, but had a 5.55 ERA. Shoulder surgery wiped out his 2003 season and ended his Orioles career.

"I still feel I owe it to the organization and the fans that paid me for some things that I didn't quite pay back," Erickson said. "You never know what could happen. I'd be very open to go back there, if they showed interest."

The Orioles chose not to re-sign Erickson at the end of 2003. He signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and made the team's opening roster last spring. But he strained a hamstring before his first start and didn't make it back to New York until mid-July.

Despite the injuries, he never considered retiring.

"The bottom line is I love playing baseball. It is a great way of life," he said. "There is nothing more exciting than standing out there, being out there with a ball in your hand. I've done it my whole life."

For the first time in his career, though, he has more than just baseball. Last February he married television reporter Lisa Guerrero, formerly of Monday Night Football. When she's not doing part-time gigs for networks like E!, she has been a constant at Dodgers camp.

Erickson said he has had no trouble balancing his personal and professional lives.

"Now there are two sides to it," he said. "There's a baseball side and the family side."

If he can stay healthy, Erickson wants to keep pitching until he can reach 200 wins; he has 141. Given his recent injury history, that's a sizable if.

"There's absolutely no point in even worrying about injuries," Colborn said. "If they come up, they come up. If they don't, we've got ourselves a warrior."

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