Furcal Playing Pain-Free in the Dominican

Rafael Furcal is playing for the first time since hobbling off the field in Colorado three months ago with back and ankle problems, Furcal had four hits, two runs and stole a base in his first Dominican winter league game in nearby San Francisco de Macoris.

A sore shoulder kept him on the sidelines through much of spring training, then he started the season on the disabled list with a severely sprained left ankle that never fully healed. As a result, Furcal struggled through his worst season in six years, playing only 138 games and finishing with a career-low .270 average, 25 stolen bases and 87 runs.

After matching a career high with 15 home runs and helping the team reach the playoffs in his first season in Los Angeles, Furcal managed only six last summer, when the Dodgers finished fourth in the National League West. And with their leadoff hitter hobbled, the Dodgers outscored only one NL team that finished with a winning record and out-homered three of 30 big-league teams.

Five mornings a week Furcal attends a downtown gym where a trainer from his winter league team, Aguilas de Cibao, gives him a massage, applies ice and heat and puts Furcal through a series of strength and flexibility exercises.

"I feel like I'm getting back to my game. Steal a base, bunting, running," he says. "It's tough when you've got a bad injury and you can't even stand up at home plate. I felt so disappointed with myself."

Furcal signed a three-year, $39-million free-agent contract with the Dodgers two years ago and that contract expires after this season. If Furcal, who turned 30 in October, wants to sign another one that big he'll have to return to being the kind of dependable and disruptive offensive force he was before the injuries, one who averaged more than 150 games, 108 runs and nearly 33 stolen bases over the previous five seasons.

"I don't like to put pressure on myself like that," Furcal says when asked about his future.

But that's not to say he isn't taking things seriously. Furcal's comeback game last weekend -- in which he played second base, not short, to ease the strain on his shoulder -- was his first in winter league play since signing with the Dodgers in 2005.

"We were encouraged that he wanted to play winter ball," saysDodger GM Colletti, who believes Furcal may have tried to rush himself into shape the last two springs after taking the winter off.

New Vegas Pitching Coach
Jim Slaton, who pitched for the Angels for 2+ seasons (1984-86) at the tail end of a 16-year career in the majors, is the new pitching coach for the Dodgers' Las Vegas affiliate. He replaces Ken Howell, who was promoted last month to major-league bullpen coach.

Slaton, 57, spent the past 11 seasons with Seattle, the past three as the Mariners' big-league bullpen coach, but was let go with a handful of other coaches in October. He was a minor league pitching coach for 13 consecutive seasons with four different organizations from 1992-2004 before moving up to the major-league staff with Seattle in 2005.

Slaton had a 151-158 record and a 4.03 ERA in the majors, primarily as a starter, and he spent the bulk of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers. The rest of the Dodgers' minor-league coaching staff for 2008 is expected to be announced later this week.

Yeager to Manage Independent Team
The Long Beach Armada signed former Dodger and 15 year major league catcher Steve Yeager as their new field manager. In addition to his playing career, the 1981 World Series MVP has managed and coached in the independent minor leagues and in the Dodger farm system at levels up through Triple-A. Yeager led the Long Beach Breakers to the Western Baseball League championship in 2001.

"It's great to return to Long Beach and Blair Field. The city and fans are first class and it's a fine ballpark. I had a wonderful experience the last go around and I'm looking forward to building a team that we can all be proud of," said Yeager. "I am excited to have the opportunity to continue to work with young players, help them develop and succeed in professional baseball, and to help them attract the attention of major league organizations."

Yeager, 59, broke into the majors late in 1972 with the Dodgers. His command of the game and throwing ability were key to the Dodgers advancing to the World Series four times in his career, capped by the 1981 World Series victory over the New York Yankees when Yeager shared MVP honors with teammates Pedro Guerrero and Ron Cey.

Called by Lou Brock the greatest throwing catcher of all-time, he was also dangerous at the plate as he belted 102 home runs in his career, had a lifetime batting average of .321 with the bases loaded, and had a career World Series batting average of .298 during his four October classics.

He continued to be part of the Dodger organization after his playing career ended as he coached future Dodgers in Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A since the 1990s. Current Dodger players Russell Martin, James Loney, Andy LaRoche, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Tony Abreau, and many others have all been under Yeager's tutelage throughout their rise to the big leagues.

Dream Realized
Tiger Woods has finally accomplished a dream by obtaining a signed baseball from Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. "How about that?" Woods said, when asked about the autograph from the player who used to pitch for Woods' favourite team, The Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I've been a Dodger fan my entire life, and Koufax is the man. For pitchers, you wouldn't think of any other player. During those five years (in the 1960s) nobody could touch him." There are many who crave the signature of Tiger Woods, while his treasured possession have been give pride of place.

"It's got a personal inscription. It's at home in my bedroom, sitting right there," added Woods, who won eight tournaments this year, adds the Koufax baseball to a pair of signed boxing trunks from the great Mohammad Ali.

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