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Renewed love of the game, health fueling Eric Gagne comeback attempt

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The former Cy Young winner is working out at Camelback Ranch, hoping a team will take a chance on him after an 8-year layoff.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Workouts Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On any given day at this time of year, you’ll find what you’d expect to find on most of the 48 pitching mounds that litter the Dodgers’ half of the Camelback Ranch complex in Phoenix. There are the low-level minor leaguers who weren’t good enough to make affiliated rosters, some rehabbing AAAA pitchers and an assortment of staffers toiling away at the unglorified grind that is extended spring training.

On one mound, though, you’ll find a former Cy Young winner with a dream and the hope that there are enough bullets left in a well-rested arm to write the next chapter of a storied career.

Eric Gagne, who turned 41 in January and hasn’t appeared in the majors since George W. Bush was president, is serious about making a major league comeback. Though not currently under contract with the Dodgers as a player, the 3-time All-Star worked as a spring training instructor for the club with whom he spent the first eight years of his career and continues to work out at the team’s facility in hopes of landing an opportunity from anybody that will give him one.

“I know the game and I know I’m not trying to get to the big leagues tomorrow morning,” Gagne said. “I’ve got to pitch and I’ve got to prove myself. Of course I’m willing to go to the minor leagues. I’m open to anything. Even if I can’t do that, I’m open to maybe the Can-Am League or independent baseball. I need to prove myself to people.”

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Before deciding to prove himself to others, Gagne needed to prove himself to, well, himself. The final three years of his 10-year run in the majors led him to short stints in Texas, Boston and Milwaukee along with two major surgeries and five separate appearances on the disabled list.

“The last few years I played were not fun,” Gagne said. “Everything was hurting in my arm, my shoulder and my back. I was not in good shape and I was really checked out mentally. It’s hard to rehab; I rehabbed for three or four years and I was pitching always with pain. That takes a toll mentally. When it became a job, that’s when I retired.”

Gagne tried short comeback attempts with the Brewers in 2009 and the Dodgers in 2010, but failed to break camp with either club and officially retired in April 2010 at age 34. Just seven years removed from winning the NL Cy Young Award as the Dodgers’ star closer in 2003, Gagne was out of baseball and had lost his passion for the game he once loved.

“The last time I was out on the mound I was in Pittsburgh [in Sept. 2008], and it was just time for me to walk away,” Gagne said. “I couldn’t put the time in physically that I wanted to and mentally I was drained from all the rehab.”

Over the next few years, Gagne’s love for the game came back in spurts as he tried just about everything except actually taking the mound again. The Montreal-born righty served as a part-owner of the independent Trois-Rivières Aigles of the Can-Am League for five seasons, managed the French national baseball team and even became part-owner of the Quebec-based B45 bat company, which specializes in the unprecedented use of yellow birch to make bats. For someone who had fallen out of love with baseball, these flirtations continually lit a fire that eventually led to the idea of taking the mound once again.

Gagne started a game for the Aigles in Aug. 2015, struggling with control and walking five in just 4.1 innings in his first competitive appearance since his spring stint with the Dodgers in 2010. He tried again with much greater success last September, retiring the first twelve batters he faced and completing five innings while allowing only one earned run while striking out six in a guest appearance for the Can-Am Ottawa Champions.

Gagne’s success led him to believe that his dream of pitching for Team Canada in this year’s World Baseball Classic could be possible, as he felt perfectly healthy and decided to keep throwing in advance of the March event.

“I never had the chance to do it-- I was always hurt, or it was a contract year,” Gagne said of the World Baseball Classic. “I knew Canada was a little thin on pitchers. After the game, I felt really good. I threw the ball really well. I called [Canada national team director] Greg Hamilton and told him, ‘hey, if you guys have openings or have any thought about me pitching for you guys, let me know and I’ll get ready.’”

Gagne kept throwing, and was rewarded with a spot on Team Canada’s roster in February. He was given the chance to take a major league mound once again, just 3,097 days after last doing so in Pittsburgh.

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Though he had just ten years earlier closed out Game 1 of the 2007 World Series in front of 36,733 freezing Bostonians at Fenway Park, Gagne had trouble controlling his emotions when he took the mound for Canada in front of just 17,209 at Marlins Park last month in a first round matinee against Colombia.

“With adrenaline, you’re nervous,” Gagne said. “Even though I’ve been in the World Series and won a Cy Young and everything else, I was really nervous after nine years of not pitching. I was really scared.”

No help to his nerves was the situation he was thrust into: bases loaded with two outs in the sixth inning of a game that Canada was trailing 2-1. Though Gagne walked in a run on five pitches facing designated hitter Jhonatan Solano, he got center-fielder Tito Polo to fly out, escaping the jam while reaching 93.8 mph on the gun.

“That’s basically why me and [fellow veteran pitcher] Ryan Dempster wanted to do it at first, to help the young guys and be in those kinds of situations,” Gagne said. “That was a really tough situation, and you don’t want to use those minor leaguers and ruin their careers on one outing where they’d get down on themselves.”

Gagne pitched two more innings against Colombia, allowing just one hit and striking out major leaguers Giovanny Urshela and Jorge Alfaro. His performance, which many viewed as a pseudo-tryout for major league clubs, impressed manager Ernie Whitt.

“He did a great job,” Whitt said. “He was disappointed that he walked the first guy. And you go to the situation where a guy has the most experience, he's been there before, he's done it. And you never like to see him walk a run in, but then he bounced back and gave us some strong innings and kept us in the ballgame. And that's all you ask of your pitchers: to keep us in the ballgame.”

Though his outing against Colombia was his only appearance of the tournament, Gagne’s impact on the Canadian team extended far past the mound. Along with Dempster, his roommate on the 1993 Canadian World Juniors team, Gagne served as a mentor for the younger pitchers on Canada’s roster.

“There are the young guys like [Phillies prospect] Nick Pivetta, [Cardinals prospect] Rowan Wick and [Cubs prospect] Ryan Kellogg that ask you questions,” Dempster said. “You try to share your experiences with them, and tell them to go out there and not be afraid to fail and not to be afraid to succeed. Trying to teach them those things, no matter what ends up happening, to just work hard.”

Dempster, who last pitched with the Red Sox in 2013 and now works as an analyst for MLB Network, said he believed Gagne deserves an opportunity to help a major league club.

“I thought his stuff was good, for as long as he had off,” Dempster said. “Shoot, he was throwing hard with a good breaking ball and of course, that changeup which has always been good. When I look around the league and look at some guys that are out there pitching on teams, I felt like his stuff was good and he could compare with a lot of those guys.”

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While it took Dempster seeing Gagne pitch well in a high-leverage situation to believe in his comeback, perhaps the first and strongest supporter of the attempt was hooked sight-unseen. Agent Scott Leventhal, who never previously represented Gagne and knew him mainly through client and mutual friend Eric Chavez, got to talking with Gagne at the gym that both attend and was impressed with his workout regimen.

“If you look him in the eye and speak to him, and he tells you this is what he wants to do,” Leventhal said, “you take it seriously based on his track record, based on the human being factor and based on his work ethic. For me, there wasn’t even one iota of question. It was just belief. I told him, ‘let’s do this.’ No one knows where this is going to take us, but let’s go down the road.”

Leventhal and Gagne, who live in the same Scottsdale neighborhood, have gone down that road together, with Leventhal marketing his new client to clubs and giving Gagne the opportunity to throw bullpens for various teams. Though Leventhal would not comment on specific teams interested in Gagne, reports have linked the Diamondbacks, Padres, Blue Jays, and, of course, the Dodgers, as interested clubs.

Los Angeles’ willingness to let Gagne audition for other teams while serving as a guest instructor speaks to the strong relationship between the club and player, who first joined the team as an amateur free agent in 1995 and was a franchise icon until he departed for the Rangers as a free agent in 2006. Though Gagne recognizes the difficulty of finding a spot in the Dodgers’ organization due to its significant pitching depth, he hopes the strong relationship might lead to an eventual opportunity.

“They’re the ones I’m in touch with all spring training who have seen me throw and seen me on a daily basis,” Gagne said. “For me, that’s a big advantage for them. They’re stacked. They’ve got a lot of pitchers. They’ve seen me a lot more, so they know what they can expect out of me.”

Gagne has his supporters in the Dodgers organization, noting that he has grown close to pitchers Kenley Jansen, Chris Hatcher, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir in his two springs as a guest instructor. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who has been with the Dodgers since 2006, values Gagne’s contributions to the organization as a mentor.

“I love having Eric around,” Honeycutt said. “I think he brings a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, interest and knowledge to pass on to the guys. Not just relief pitchers, but anybody. Always enjoy having him around. I wish he was part of our system. He needs to get to a decision to whether he wants to coach or he wants to still try to be active.”

Leventhal doesn’t view those two roles as mutually exclusive, and envisions a player-coach role were his client to land with a Triple-A team this season.

“A guy like Eric doesn’t grow on trees from a standpoint of what he’s accomplished, regardless of age,” Leventhal said. “The impact that he would have, not just from a production standpoint of being able to get hitters out, but his ability to mentor young prospects from a standpoint of how to go about your business, that’s a huge sort of bonus for any club. Having a guy like Eric around with that track record and history, I don’t know if you could put a price tag on that.”

“At the end of the day,” Leventhal said, “it takes two to tango here.”

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Being an unemployed 41-year-old in late April is never a good thing in the Major League Baseball world, but the lack of an official opportunity has not shaken Gagne’s commitment. He continues to throw bullpens every other day at Camelback, sticking to a strict workout regimen on a daily basis.

30 minutes in the pool, one hour of cardio, stretching for 15 to 20 minutes and alternating upper and lower body drills is how Gagne’s days at Camelback begin. Cardio comes later in the day, as well as heavy ball training. All so a guy who has a World Series ring and $40 million in earnings might get the chance to ride minor league buses from small city to small city in pursuit of a renewed dream.

It’s the same dream that fell into Gagne’s lap in the early 1990s, when his father told him he wasn’t allowed to play hockey year-round and had to pick up a new sport. It’s the same dream that led him to play baseball at Seminole State College in Oklahoma, where, speaking only French, he learned English by watching “Kenan & Kel” on one of his television’s three channels and singing along to American music on repeat without knowing what any of the words meant.

Gagne’s path to stardom fifteen years ago was an unusual one, and his struggles and early retirement may have been even more uncommon. His injury history and admission to using human growth hormone during his playing career have made the calls from his doubters even louder.

Gagne said his body feels as good as it ever does, with Leventhal adding that Gagne commonly says its “scary” how good he feels after bullpens. In addition to his famous changeup and low-to-mid 90s fastball, Gagne has worked with Honeycutt and other Dodgers coaches to develop a slider that he says has the ability to be “wipeout.”

Despite Gagne’s confidence and dedication, some of his supporters have some concerns. Honeycutt worries about Gagne’s ability to bounce back from in-game situations with a 41-year-old body. Dempster’s struggle to get ready for the World Baseball Classic after a 3-year layoff have him wondering how someone who has been out of the game for three times as long is going to be able to do it.

“Good for him for doing it,” Dempster said. “It’s funny, professional sports, to me, is the one business that everyone tells you it’s time to hang it up. Every other job, that doesn’t really happen. So for him to say, ‘screw it, I don’t care what anybody says and I’m gonna try to do this,’ I think that’s really, really awesome.”

Though many have their doubts, Gagne will keep showing up at Camelback Ranch alongside a bunch of other dreamers who don’t have one hundredth of his track record. He’ll keep putting the work in, performing in front of single-digit crowds in the Arizona sun weeks after the rest of the proven major leaguers wearing Dodger blue departed for six months of chartered flights and 5-star hotels on the road.

“I know I’ve got a couple years left in my arm, and now I might have a chance to show people,” Gagne said. “I want to just put everything I’ve got between the lines and see what happens.”