The saga of Chin-Feng Chen

So, there was Chin-Feng Chen in the Dodger camp this spring. Nothing new about that, right? Well, there were a couple of major differences, one good, the other, not so. <br><br> Let's start with the bad news first because that's what he received when he was told that he was dropped from the 40-man squad. Oh, he was offered his usual spring training stint -- as a non-roster invitee, something he accepted.

The good part came from his performance. He hit well, winning one game with a clutch home run and acquitting himself ably in others. He finally heard encouraging news from Jim Tracy about, of all things, his fielding, which has always been the lesser part of his game. "He's worked hard and made himself into a good fielder," said the Dodger skipper. "Let's face it. He wasn't when he first came up."

Nice, but all that didn't get him a spot on the big club, come opening day. No, Jason Repko clearly played his way into that role so here Chen is back in Las Vegas and that, for sure, is the same old, same old.

Chen holds the Vegas record for the most home runs -- 72. That means, of course, that's he's been around long enough to do that for he is currently starting his fourth year in the desert gambling oasis. What's more, he seems reasonably content doing so, saying, "I'd like to be in the big leagues but, if I can't, I like it in Las Vegas."

They like him, too, for he's always crunched the ball almost everywhere he's been. He 's bombed 131 out of the yards in his seven minor league seasons, a total that ranks him third on the Dodger alltime minor league list behind Don Demeter and Jim Gentile, in case you're wondering. His 516 RBI ties him for eighth on said list with Claude Westmoreland (and there's a guy who never got into even one big league game.)

"Almost everywhere" because what Chen hasn't done is hit when he's been called up. What he has shown is that he's not likely to do any slugging if he sits for days at a time. Consider -- last year he was first brought up on April 13 and was with L.A. until April 24. In those 11 days, he got up three times. He next was summoned on July 9 to stick around until July 19. That's a 10-day span in which he made it to the plate four times. Finally, he was recalled on Sept. 7 to sit the rest of the season with only a solitary at-bat. No, he didn't hit in any of those.

Of course, he did everywhere else in 2004 including a stint with the team from his native Taiwan in the Olympics. There he was 11-for-26 with one homer, three doubles and eight RBI in seven games. In and around all these journeys to other parts, he was .289-20-65 in 81 games for Vegas.

When he broke in in 1999 with San Bernadino, he had a .316 -31-125 rookie season that made him the coming thing. Now, he's regarded more of a Four-A player. You know, the kind that's too good for Triple-A but not quite good enough for steady employment in the bigtime. Just like Phil Hiatt. You remember him -- forever putting up impressive numbers down below, then failing to make a big league team thereafter.

Chen's problem seems to be that he's something of a streak hitter who'll occasionally fall into slumps but leave him in the lineup and he'll get out of them and bash the ball. He also is chained to left field by a balky arm that doesn't permit his employment in center or right. Oh, they tried him at first base back in 2002 but he was clearly unhappy there so theexperiment was abandoned.

How's he hitting so far in 2005? First -rate, as you might expect. Over .400, so far. But with the outfield siuation the way it is in L.A. it's likely that even Repko will be coming back when Jayson Werth gets healthy so there's no room at all for an addition.

Chen, who's now 27, has the distinction of being the first player ever from Taiwan to make it to the top. He also is one of the few to play in both the Little League World Series and the major leagues. Honors to be proud of, for sure. But for now, he goes uncomplaining about his task and hopes that somebody up there pays attention.