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SPRING TRAINING Comeback going well for Tribe's Gutierrez



Published: Fri, March 21, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



He has been switched from second base to third this spring.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -- Ricky Gutierrez couldn't pick up a baseball or his kids without jolting pain.

Yet despite tingling in his arms and numbness across his shoulders, the Cleveland Indians infielder continued to play for 41/2 months last season.

Eventually, he relented and said he was hurting. Only then did he learn what he risked.

"The doctor told me I could have been paralyzed," Gutierrez said. "Hearing that was a very scary thing."

Now, just four months after undergoing delicate spinal surgery, the 32-year-old Gutierrez is making an unexpected comeback.

On Thursday, Gutierrez, who has been switched from second base to third, fielded grounders in a game for the first time since Aug. 15. It was just his second game in the field since Oct. 7 when he had two vertebrae in his neck fused to take pressure off his spine.

"I'm just trying to get back into the baseball mode after not playing for so long," said Gutierrez, who went 1-for-4 with an RBI for Triple-A Buffalo. "Everything is coming along."

Opener chances

Gutierrez is coming along so fast, he thinks it's "50-50" he'll be ready for the season opener. Not long ago, his odds were much longer.

"If you would have told me in January that I was this far ahead, I would have probably said that you were crazy," Gutierrez said, rubbing the long surgical scar on his neck. "I didn't think I would be this far ahead, but I am."

Indians manager Eric Wedge hasn't ruled out Gutierrez being in his opening day lineup.

"It's amazing what he's done in a short period of time," Wedge said. "But he also has a lot to accomplish to be an option."

The Indians weren't expecting Gutierrez to be ready so soon. But his tenacity shouldn't be a surprise considering his determination to play last season.

April injury

Gutierrez injured his neck while diving for a grounder in April. Over the next four months, he couldn't make a sudden move without pain. Titling his head back to go after a pop fly was excruciating.

Still, he played. It's how he was raised by his father, a former minor leaguer in the St. Louis organization.

"If I knew the injury was of this magnitude, of course I would have said something," Gutierrez said. "But I've played through minor injuries and pain before. I thought it was a pinched nerve. But as the season kept going, it got worse and worse."

His performance suffered, too. He signed an $11 million, three-year contract with the Indians as a free agent before the 2002 season and wanted to live up to it. But ground balls he normally scooped up, scooted through the infield. He couldn't swing with authority and running was sheer torture.

Cleveland fans let Gutierrez hear it. If only they had known.

"It's the first time I've been booed," he said. "It was frustrating. I wasn't myself."

Gutierrez may have kept the injury a secret, but he was struck on the thumb during batting practice on Aug. 15. While visiting a doctor for that injury, he complained of neck soreness. An MRI showed something more severe.

A disc in his neck was pressing on Gutierrez's spine. Dr. Kalman Bloomberg, who did the surgery, couldn't believe Gutierrez had been playing.

"He was just shocked," Gutierrez said. "I could have been in a wheelchair. I guess the man above was looking out for me."




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