Gagne seeks the road back to the jungle

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The jersey in Eric Gagne’s(notes) locker in the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse is No. 38, the one he wore for the Dodgers in another lifetime, through those three nearly perfect seasons and all those perfect nights and every grunt from every Game Over.

Once, it was draped across the broadest of backs, billowing beneath hard labor, the man inside raging against the ninth inning like no one before, or since. Untucked and unkempt, he protected 84 consecutive leads, won a Cy Young award and serenaded a city with full-blast Guns N’ Roses.

Now, his cap is straight-from-the-box Dodger blue. His spikes shine. His hair is trimmed over the ears.

He appears 20 to 30 pounds lighter than the bull who muscled up on those big fastballs six and seven years ago, who finally blew out and left body parts strewn over the Dodger Stadium infield, who earned a few sobering paragraphs in the Mitchell Report, who bounced from team to team until every inch of that fastball was gone, who pop-clutched everything last summer in a Canadian independent league and who wants one more shot at honoring No. 38.

Ramon Troncoso(notes), who pitched in 73 games for the Dodgers last season, surrendered the number without a thought.

"He made that number for the Dodgers," Troncoso said.

It hangs lifelessly, not even expectant, handed over – loaned, maybe – by a guy across the room.

"It's his," Troncoso said.

Gagne, 34, will pitch the next six weeks for a place in the Dodgers bullpen and a half-million dollars and another summer sitting out beyond the left-field fence, waiting for his turn. He'll pitch so his four children – including a daughter named Bluu – can experience it with him. He'll pitch because you don't stop trying, not at 34, not even when the beer leagues are the only ones calling, not even as a steroid era parolee.

His sole goal is to pitch in the big leagues again.

"I want to play another three or four years," he says, smiling. "But I'll take one day."

He'd come and gone so fast, bright and fleeting as a flashbulb on Hollywood Boulevard. Now, three years away seemed like 30. Yet his place here, among the pitchers and catchers and early arrivers, seems natural. He sits just inside the back door at Camelback Ranch and says he wished he'd never left, that he had a lot of work to do and would serve some time in the minor leagues if that were necessary, and that, no, he isn't proud of all of his decisions.

Maybe it's part of the reason he's back, pushing forward, to find out for himself how much was real and how much came delivered in unmarked boxes. That'll be part of the story too, no matter how it ends, whether in a slow jog to the Dodger Stadium mound, 50,000 people on their feet, or a wave from a parking lot in the desert, a security guard holding open the gate.

The Mitchell Report said he received shipments of human growth hormone in 2004, and Gagne's not denied the story. He saved 45 games in 2004, at the end of a three-year span in which he saved 152 games. In the five years since, much of that time downed by arm and back injuries, ailments, surgeries and rehabs (and last summer spent as a starting pitcher for the Quebec Capitales), Gagne saved 35 games.

As for the impact the report had on his life, Gagne says, "It changed it a lot for a couple years. It is what it is. There's a lot of regrets and everything, but you gotta keep going. … It's going to be on my resume for the rest of my life. For me, it's over. I've got to go on."

Regrets?

"There's a lot of regrets."

As the room fills with men who will gladly pitch him out of the league again, Gagne is glad for the place among them, for the chance to wear what is now their uniform. Once, for a short time, there was no bigger star. Now, there are few bigger long shots.

He says his fastball on a good day will reach 93 mph, that he's still got his curveball and changeup, and, he says with a grin, "Maybe a cutter." The season with the Capitales was good for his body and his mind, both of which needed a rest. He pitched every five days, which revived his arm. He had fun, leading him to believe the baseball field was safe again.

He is sure this is the right team at the right time.

"First of all," he says, "I know I can still do it."

Second, there's only one place he wanted to try.

"This was the best time of my life," Gagne says. "I'm not trying to relive that, but I’m trying to feed off it."

It's his uniform again, his number, his place. He'll get hitters out or he won't. His arm will hold up this time or it won't. Yeah, welcome back to the jungle.

Eric Gagne smiles.

"I still don’t believe it," he says. "This is good."