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McCracken reveals knee is strained

OF was hurt during talks, should heal by opener.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- The opening day of spring training is filled with the hope and optimism and romance of beginning a season anew. But the first day of the Devil Rays' second spring included a wrinkle of concern.

Outfielder Quinton McCracken, the 1998 team MVP, has strained ligaments in his right knee and won't be ready to play until at least mid-March.

McCracken injured the knee two weeks ago -- before signing a $1.85-million contract -- while running during conditioning drills. He will spend two weeks on a rehab and strengthening program, then begin a conservative program working his way into baseball shape.

Team officials said McCracken will be out 4-6 weeks, but they expect him back for the end of the preseason schedule and to be at full speed by Opening Day.

"There's a great opportunity to have Quinton Opening Day in baseball shape, just like you would in any normal spring training," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "That's the best case and the worst case right now."

McCracken said he had no doubts he would be ready for the April 5 opener at Baltimore. "None whatsoever," he said. "Hopefully everything will go well and I'll be ready in mid-March or so. I think a couple weeks will be more than enough to get ready for the season."

McCracken is expected to start in either leftfield or centerfield this season, and the injury shouldn't impact those plans if he makes it back on schedule. However, as with any injury, manager Larry Rothschild said he'll have to wait and see how McCracken responds.

"I won't know until we get him back on his legs and running," Rothschild said. "I won't know until we get deeper into spring training, but hopefully not too deep, because then it becomes problematic."

McCracken was running sprints at 60-70 percent effort on a field near his Arizona home Feb. 2 or 3 when he hyperextended the knee. He went home and iced the knee, but he grew a bit concerned when it was swollen the next morning.

Doctors in Arizona told him it appeared to be a strain, and he was further examined by team physicians and given an MRI exam when arriving in St. Petersburg last week. Team medical director Dr. James Andrews took a look at the knee and the test results Thursday and confirmed the sprain diagnosis.

McCracken, who was walking with a slight limp Thursday, said the knee felt good and his range of motion had improved.

McCracken's agents were in the midst of negotiating his 1999 contract at the time of the injury and did not tell the Rays about it. Nearly a week later, the parties agreed on the one-year contract, which was the midpoint of their arbitration filings.

It wasn't until a few days later that McCracken informed the Rays he was injured.

"I felt at the time it was a minor injury and there was no need to tell them," McCracken said. "I knew I was coming here in a couple weeks and there was no need to disclose it until I got here."

LaMar said he had no problem with how the situation was handled -- to this point.

"If he's on the field in a couple of weeks and heading toward Opening Day and the doctors feel like nothing is permanently damaged than I would think it's business as usual," LaMar said. "If, however, we find there is some kind of permanent or long-term injury involved, then we might have to discuss our options on the contract."

The injury further complicates an already crowded outfield situation. McCracken was one of the team's most productive offensive players last season but split time between leftfield and centerfield. One of the biggest decisions to be made this spring is whether to play Randy Winn in center and put McCracken in left, or to play McCracken in center and send Winn to the minors.

Rothschild said the injury won't have much of an impact on the decision. The Rays already have an idea what a healthy McCracken can do, and Winn was going to play extensively in the spring anyway. The trickle-down effect will be elsewhere among the outfielders.

"I think it's going to give somebody time out there who might not have had it," Rothschild said. "Who knows? It happened, and maybe something good will come out of it. I have no idea who it's going to be, but it will be somebody."

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