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Getting ready for the big test

Both Wilson Alvarez and the Rays have a good deal riding on the left-hander's comeback from last season's shoulder surgery. He is making steady progress.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Some Rays games were hard enough to watch last season, but for Wilson Alvarez they were especially painful.

Sidelined for the season after May shoulder surgery, Alvarez came to Tropicana Field almost every day for rehabilitation treatment and exercises. His teammates were playing just a few hundred feet down the hall, but Alvarez usually would stay in the clubhouse, keeping vague track of the action on TV, leaving well before the game was over.

"By the second or third inning, I'd be feeling like I don't belong there," Alvarez said, sitting relaxed at his locker last week. "I just wanted to do my exercises and get out of there. All these guys, they're out there busting their tails off and playing, and I'm not doing anything. I'd be in the trainer's room and a player would come in for some tape or something and I would be feeling so jealous about it. The guy would be there to get some tape on so he could go back on the field. I'd be feeling like, "Man, I wish I could do that.' "

Slowly, but thus far steadily, Alvarez is getting closer. His rehabilitation from surgery to repair a hefty tear in his rotator cuff has been on schedule and without setbacks, though he says he thinks it will be the end of April before he is pitching in games, before he finally can relax and feel whole again.

For now, Alvarez says that is all he is thinking about. He drives from his Sarasota home to St. Petersburg every day, works out hard, makes mental notes of progress that is too incremental to truly be measured. Monday, he brought his wife, Daihanna, just to watch what was his second post-surgery session throwing off a mound.

"I just want to heal and be able to pitch," Alvarez says. "That's all I worry about right now. To go out there and let it go. That's all that's in my mind right now. Every single day, every single night. It's just, pitch."

Whenever Alvarez is ready, he will be confronted by a mound of issues and concerns that could make this season the most critical in his career. In turn, Alvarez's return might be the most crucial factor if the Rays are to have any success.

Tampa Bay fans may need to be reminded, but not that many years ago, about the time he signed that five-year, $35-million contract with the Rays, Alvarez was considered among the top left-handed pitchers in the game.

He'd won 15 games for the White Sox in 1996, and was on his way to another strong season (9-8 with a 3.03 ERA) in 1997 when he and Roberto Hernandez were acquired by the Giants. Alvarez helped San Francisco into the playoffs, pitching the division clincher, and finished 13-11.

The Rays may have overpaid -- and they may not have had any choice -- but felt pretty good about signing a frontline pitcher with a 71-54 record and 3.83 career ERA. "I don't think there's any question it was a little bit of a coup," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

Since then, Alvarez went 6-14 with a 4.73 ERA and spent time on disabled in 1998; went 9-9 with a 4.22 ERA, including an embarrassing incident in which he threw his glove and cap into the stands and left his jersey on the dugout floor, and spent more time on the disabled list in 1999; and missed the entire 2000 season after experiencing shoulder discomfort in his second spring training outing.

For the $18-million they have paid him so far, the Rays have gotten 3022/3 innings, a 4.46 ERA and a 15-23 record.

"I don't think he'll have a more important year than this year as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray," LaMar said. "I say that whether he'll be ready by the end of spring training or not, and I feel that way for two reasons.

"No. 1, this team is a whole lot better with him out there every five days than not. And No. 2, I think he has to re-establish himself as a major-league pitcher.

"We can look back and, whether we should have signed him or not signed him, he was 27 years old and one of the fine pitchers available in the free-agent market that year. But we have not, because of health and performance, gotten the Wilson Alvarez that we paid for. I not only say that, but I think the players in this organization feel the same way.

"When he's healthy, and I'm sure that time will come sometime early this year when he can say, "I'm 100 percent healthy,' then I think he needs to come in here and not only prove it to the Devil Rays, but to get back to being a productive major-league pitcher. I think that's extremely important to him, and to us."

Alvarez has played baseball since he was a 7-year-old in Venezuela. It is what brought him to this country, what allowed him to provide lavishly for his wife and three daughters, what defines him.

Going a year without playing was hard, harder than the worst failures he experienced on the field. "Nobody has any idea how tough it is to go to the field and not be able to play," Alvarez said. "I don't know how to describe it."

Because of that absence, you would think -- and the Rays hope -- that Alvarez is hungry to get back and to do well.

"I would think there are a lot of reasons why Wilson Alvarez should have that hunger," LaMar said. "One, to be completely healthy for the first time in several years. Two, to help us win, and we can win with a healthy Wilson Alvarez.

"And, he has two years left on his contract, and if I was him and looked around and saw the money being paid for left-handed pitching these days, if Wilson Alvarez could pitch the next two years the way he pitched early in his career, then who knows where he ends up? So there are a lot of reasons for Wilson to have that hunger and only time will tell."

Alvarez, who will be 31 next month, understands why this could be construed as a pivotal year in his career. "Oh yeah," he said. "It's the fourth year in my contract and basically I haven't done anything for the team."

It's just that he doesn't want to look at it that way, doesn't want to deal with the what-if's or the might-be's of the future, doesn't want to set any goals or create any expectations.

He acknowledges the criticism and skepticism he gets from some fans. He mentions how good it makes him feel to know that some teammates are pulling for him. He says, "I owe a lot of things to this organization because they still believe in me."

Ultimately, however, he says he has only his harshest critic to please -- himself.

"I want to get to the point where I don't have to see the trainers, where I don't have to see anybody, where I don't have to do any exercises for my arm," Alvarez said.

"I want to get to the point where I just go out there and let it go. "Here it is ... hit it.' That's where I want to get, right there."

Today's schedule

Workout starts at 10 a.m. at the Ray Naimoli training complex and is scheduled to run a little past noon. Parking and admission are free.

Ted Williams Hall of Fame Ceremony

WHAT: Eighth annual Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame inductions.

WHEN/WHERE: Noon today; Ted Williams Museum, 2455 N Citrus Hills Blvd., Hernando.

TV: Ch. 9.

ADMISSION: $35 for first-come, first-served seating under the main tent adjacent to the museum; $75 for preferred seating. Both include a commemorative yearbook. Tickets can be purchased at the museum. People without tickets can sit outside the tent area for free, but the view is limited.

INDUCTEES: Paul Molitor, Jim Rice, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount.

OTHER AWARD WINNERS: Wall of Great Achievement -- Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver; Splendid Splinter -- Nomar Garciaparra; 3,000 Hit Club -- Al Kaline, Winfield; Productive Player -- Barry Bonds (National League), Jason Giambi (American League); Rookie of the Year -- Rafael Furcal (NL), Mark Quinn (AL).

SCHEDULED TO ATTEND: Furcal, Garciaparra, Giambi, Rice, Seaver, Quinn, Winfield and Yount.

NOTES: For the first time since his museum opened in 1995, Williams will not be present to give out awards. He is recovering from open-heart surgery, which he had Jan. 15 at a New York hospital.

INFORMATION: Call (352) 527-6566.

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