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INDIANS Gutierrez has unsure career after surgery



Published: Thu, February 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The infielder is making progress from neck surgery in October.

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- Ricky Gutierrez arrived at spring training Wednesday unsure of his baseball future.

The Cleveland Indians' infielder is making progress after undergoing career-threatening neck surgery on Oct. 7, but the 32-year-old doesn't know when he'll play again.

"I feel good," Gutierrez said. "I've been lifting weights and running and I haven't had any pain. I haven't done any baseball stuff, but there's no timetable for that. We'll take that day-by-day."

The surgery, performed by Dr. Kalman Bloomberg in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., fused two vertebra. Bloomberg also did a bone graft and inserted a plate and two screws into his neck. Gutierrez has a long scar along his neck as a result of the operation.

Aftermath

"I wasn't even in pain after the surgery," he said. "I was in a neck brace for six weeks. They were supposed to put another brace on after that, but they said they didn't need to because I was making good progress."

Gutierrez is eager to get back on the field, but knows he has to go at a slow pace.

"It's been tough," he said. "I want to swing the bat and do baseball things, but this was a very serious surgery. It's something I can't rush. I have to listen to the doctors."

Gutierrez says he first hurt the neck diving for a ball in Detroit in April. The pain continued to worsen, but Gutierrez didn't tell anyone, even though he couldn't look up for fly balls and felt a tingling on the left side of his body every time he dove for a grounder.

"That was a question everyone asked me in the off-season on how I could keep playing," he said. "That was tough. I knew something was wrong. I thought it was a pinched nerve and I would deal with it after the season, but it got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore."

The clincher

The end came for Gutierrez when he dove for a ground ball in a game in Tampa on Aug. 15 -- his last game of the season.

"I was driving home after the game and I told my wife I couldn't do it anymore," he said.

Gutierrez finally told interim manager Joel Skinner about the injury. That started two months of uncertainty as he prepared for the surgery. The doctors told him he might be paralyzed and the operation could even be life threatening.

"The day of the surgery was very scary," he said. "When it was over I felt like there was a big weight off my back. They told me afterwards if I had dove for one more ground ball or had one more collision I might have been paralyzed."

Gutierrez has two years remaining on a three-year contract that pays him $11 million. He knows the prospect that his career may be over is a reality.

"I thought a lot about that in the off-season," he said. "The fact I got to spend time with my kids and watched them play sports gave me a lot of comfort."

Struggled

Gutierrez struggled most of last season, hitting .275 with 11 errors at second base. With right fielder Matt Lawton playing with a torn right rotator cuff, the Indians had several defensive lapses on the right side.

"We had two cripples on the same side," he said. "No wonder it was a circus. I had to go out in the outfield because he couldn't throw the ball and he had to come in because I couldn't look up."

If Gutierrez is able to play, the Indians will move him to third base. For now, Casey Blake, Bill Selby and Greg LaRocca will compete for the job.




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