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02/28/97 - 04:55 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Cover report

Tuning up for '97 model year

HOUSTON - Ken Caminiti gingerly pulls the protective cover from the car, his caution having more to do with concern for his healing left shoulder than the finish on the '55 Chevy.

''I bought this baby five years ago from a guy in Denton, Texas, for $3,900,'' Caminiti says. ''I've put another $180,000 in her since then.''

Thanks to Caminiti's persistence the '55 Chevy has been turned from potential scrap heap material into a showpiece that was featured regularly at several auto shows around the country last year.

Now the San Diego Padres' switch-hitting third baseman and 1996 National League Most Valuable Player - a unanimous pick - is using a similar investment of time and effort to rehabilitate the surgically repaired rotator cuff in his left shoulder.

The 33-year-old Caminiti is ahead of schedule and, in his opinion, will be ''as good as new,'' perhaps as soon as Opening Day.

''I'm still shooting for April 1,'' Caminiti says.

He's aware that it's not a universal opinion.

''The doctors and trainers are already planning on shutting me down for the first month of the season or longer, but I don't want them making that decision for me if I can go,'' he said. ''If I can't I won't, but the way I feel right now and the way this (rehab) is going, I really believe I will be there on the first.''

If anyone could recover by April 1, Caminiti can. He carried the San Diego Padres into the postseason despite tearing his rotator cuff in April and battling a hamstring strain, lower abdominal strain and back problems during the season.

In a 41/2-hour operation three days after the Padres' season, surgeon Lewis Yocum found 'one of Caminiti's muscles around his rotator had been torn for so long that it had retracted, like a rubber band left in the sun.

''They had to work hard to get it stretched back out and worked back into place,'' Caminiti says, ''and then they drilled a hole in my bone and sutured it underneath.''

Early estimates had Caminiti returning to the Padres in July, with June an outside possibility. The doctors told Caminiti anything sooner was unrealistic. The news hit Caminiti hard, as did the need to wait in the beginning.

''Sitting around for eight weeks, doing nothing and watching my body fall apart, that really bugged me,'' he says. ''Except for the rotator, last year my body was in the best shape it's ever been to end a season. Even with the bad shoulder, I still kept my muscle tone. I was lean.

''Then I had to sit there watching fat come around here (grabbing his midsection), not feeling good and just thinking, 'Man, I can't do anything.' ''

''I was grouchy, I wasn't much fun to be around. I couldn't dress or wash myself. My dad lived with us for a while and helped dress me and put my socks on.

''At night I'd have to lie still. I couldn't roll over or the pain would shoot through my shoulder and I'd be wide awake. But then I spent a lot of time wide awake staring at the ceiling and hating the way I felt and wondering when I would feel normal again.''

By mid-November Caminiti was finally ready to begin range of motion movements. He could roll over in bed and not feel the knife-like reminder of his recent surgery.

The improvement was modest, but one that sparked Caminiti's spirits.

''I could notice the difference,'' he said. ''I could focus on the fact I was improving.''

Caminiti has relived the play scores of times in his mind.

It happened during an April visit to Houston during a series against his former team.

''(Derrick) May squibbed one off the end (of the bat),'' Caminiti says. ''It was over my head, I went back for it, I dove and I caught it and flipped around and landed on my elbow and shoulder.

''I got up and I was holding my arm and thinking 'Geez, what's wrong,' because there was a sharp pain in there, but I told trainer Larry Duensing) I was all right. The next day I started feeling pain on that side so I knew I hurt it, but during the game it just went numb. But I could lift it and do everything with it so I thought it was no big deal.''

It didn't take long for Caminiti to realize the injury was more serious than he first thought.

''About two weeks later we played at Atlanta. I slid into second base and that's when I really felt it,'' he says. ''I came running off the field holding my wrist to try and keep my shoulder from jarring and everybody was asking me, 'What's wrong with your wrist?' ''

The next day the Braves' Rafael Belliard pulled a ball, and Caminiti, in pain, half-heartedly dove for it. ''I was miserable for about a month and a half after that,'' he says. ''Probably about two weeks after the Belliard play I said my shoulder's sore and that's when they made me get the MRI that showed it was torn.''

Even that news wouldn't keep Caminiti out of the lineup. He told team medical personnel he would play and asked what could they do to keep him in the lineup.

''So they gave me a shot (of cortisone) and I could lift it,'' Caminiti says. ''Every now and then I'd aggravate it by swinging at a bad pitch or really cutting loose trying to hit a high pitch, or even sliding, but after a while I figured out a way to slide where it didn't hurt as much. By the end of year I was sliding that way without even thinking about it.''

For the rest of the year Caminiti lived with pain. He got to the point where he learned to anticipate the shiver of pain that his shoulder would give him every time he forgot and lifted the left arm too high.

The shoulder occasionally nibbled at his confidence.

''After I hurt it, I got two hits for 30 or 40 at-bats,'' Caminiti says. ''Against the Giants, I was swinging with one hand left-handed, and I hit a ball to the opposite field. It carried all the way to the wall and Barry Bonds snatched it. I remember going back to the bench so frustrated. I was thinking, 'That's the best ball I've hit in two weeks and if I had a good shoulder it might have gone somewhere.'

''I seriously thought about taking myself out right then because I didn't think I was helping the team. Defensively, I was OK, but I wasn't doing it offensively.''

Then came a boost.

''That same series I was hitting right-handed and I hit one and, whoa, it took off out of the park,'' Caminiti says. ''That convinced me that I could still help the team hitting right-handed.''

The only MVP in baseball history to win the award with a torn rotator cuff for most of the year, Caminiti wants to find the answer to a question that came to him during months of staring at that ceiling.

What would he do for a full season completely healthy?

With a bum shoulder and assorted injuries, he helped propel the Padres into the National League playoffs, where they were eliminated by St. Louis. He set team records with 40 homers, 130 RBI and a .621 slugging percentage.

Could he do even more?

''I've never been through an entire season completely healthy,'' Caminiti says. ''I've played with sore shoulders, knee injuries and then last year.

''I'm stronger now, and getting stronger, and I expect to be in the best shape of my life in 1997. I really would like to see what I could do if I was healthy for 162 games.''

The way his rehabilitation is going, Caminiti might get his wish.

''I really think they're going to have to let me play,'' he says of his April 1 target. ''I don't see how they're going to keep me from playing.''

Jim Molony, contributing writer.

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