Loney Hoping For Another Spring Like 2004

<br>VERO BEACH, Florida</b>-- James Loney arrived in camp for his second straight chance as a non-roster participant. What he'd like very much to do is clone the 2004 version and, at the same time, start dispelling a couple of cloudy notions that hang around his candidacy.

If they went solely by spring training performances, then Loney would have been the opening day first baseman in Los Angeles for his performance was that good. Everything he hit then -- even his outs -- were screeching shots. But, after all, he was only 19 coming off a year spent in Class A. Thus the notion prevailed that he needed more experience so send him to AA Jacksonville and let's see what happens.

What occurred was not particularly pleasant for, early on, he was hit by a pitch, which broke a finger that became infected. Instead of playing, he was lying in a hospital bed, being fed intravenously. "I was only able to exercise my legs, not my upper body at all," he recalls.

It was to be seven weeks before he got back and that, he knows, "Was too soon. I was weak; I didn't feel right until, maybe, the final two weeks of the season." The result was a .238-4-35 year, hardly the numbers of the future Dodger first baseman.

And, remember a broken wrist, caused by still another errant pitch, had called an abrupt halt to his rookie season in 2002. So, the whispers that he was injury-prone began whirling about.

He sharply disagrees. "These were accidents. The finger was broken by a slider that just got away and bore inside. I've always been in good shape. It's not like I was pulling hamstrings or getting hurt like that."

To demonstrate once again what he could do when he was healthy, Loney finished 2004 by going to the challenging environment of the Arizona Fall League, where he clipped some of the finest pitching prospects in the game for a .314 mark. Still, that other cloud appeared in the minds of some, "Where's the power?" for he included only two home runs in that parade of hits.

The Dodgers aren't worried, nor is James, himself. After all, he's only 20 (he'll turn 21 in May), playing in the game's higher environs. History shows that some of the premier power hitters didn't drive all that many out of the parks when they were his age. Knowledgeable scouts point to his doubles totals -- he bashed 31 while playing a full season for Vero Beach in 2003 even while suffering the lingering effects of the wrist broken at the end of his first year. And those two-base hits usually start flying over the fences as a player gets stronger and more experienced.

To do that, James works out with dedication in the off-season at home in Missouri City, Tex., a suburb of Houston. His upper body is far more packed now although he says he's careful to avoid becoming muscle-bound, something that may look good at the beach but which can tie a person up at the plate.

There were the usual off-season rumors that had him bound here, there, and everywhere in trade talks, something that he hears on the fringes but tries not to pay attention, too. "It's nice to know that people want you," he says, matter-of-factly.

Now his mission is "to show them what I'm capable of. "He knows that Heep Seop Choi has been designated the first baseman apparent. "That's something I can't control so I don't worry about it." As for where he'll be -- L.A., Las Vegas or Jacksonville, again. "I don't know so I don't worry about that, either."

There are few first baseman who can play the position with the skill that Loney does, something he's always demonstrated since he was the Dodgers' top draft pick in 2002, surprising people who thought he was destined to be a pitcher as a pro, having excelled on the mound for Elkins High , the nation's top-rated high school. However, the Dodgers desired that sweet left-handed swing.

When at the plate, he's not a g uess hitter as so many are. "I try to react to the situation. I keep my swing short and level". He's not trying to get more lift for power; rather, he's very conscious of taking the ball to all fields, something he does in style.

If he has the kind of spring he had one year ago, he's certain to be one place, for sure. That's in the forefront of the minds of Dodger brass.