#039;Luck#039; leaves Larson limping

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. - If there's a virus going around, Brandon Larson is sure to catch it. If a foul ball whistles toward the dugout, his head is liable to be the one turned the other away.

The pitcher lets one slip? There's no doubt it'll zero in on some part of his body.

That's just the way it is.

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''He's got that cloud,'' Cincinnati Reds manager Dave Miley marveled.

The third baseman is under it again. He'll open the season on the disabled list, done in by a sprained toe that wiped out most of his spring training.

''Turf toe!'' Larson said Wednesday, sitting wearily - and warily - in a clubhouse folding chair. ''I wouldn't wish it on anybody, I'll tell you that. Me especially. It's just another chapter to a string of spring training incidents. It's really disappointing.''

This time, a toe. Last month, it was an eye infection. Before that, a rash.

And that's just the latest in a thick medical history brimming with bad moments that have derailed a promising career.

The Texan led Louisiana State to its second straight College World Series title in 1997, winning MVP honors, and was drafted by the Reds in the first round.

Before long, things started to go wrong.

Only 18 games into his second season in the minors, he tore up his left knee while sliding into home plate and needed reconstructive surgery. A year later, he bruised the same knee and was forced on the disabled list.

He was just getting started.

After an uneventful 2001 season that included his first promotion to the majors, his luck took a turn for the weird.

Larson had one of his proudest moments on Aug. 15, 2002, hitting a homer off Randy Johnson the first time he ever faced him. Naturally, it wasn't long before euphoria gave way to a jolt of pain.

One plate appearance later, one of Johnson's sliders landed squarely on Larson's right big toe, breaking it.

The toe got better. The luck didn't.

Three weeks later, Larson was in the dugout in St. Louis when Todd Walker lined a foul his way. The ball smacked him behind the right ear.

That wasn't the most painful part. He fell to the floor while trying to get out of the way, put his left hand down to break his fall and broke it - the hand, that is.

Last year, he strained his rib cage during spring training, then lost the starting third base job by going .083 in the first three weeks of the season. He had surgery on his left shoulder in September, finishing off another disappointing year.

Given a chance to reclaim the starting job this spring, he came down with a stomach virus, got an infected eye, then hurt his toe. He hasn't played since March 10, prompting the move to the disabled list.

''Just weird stuff,'' Larson said.

And disappointing, too. At age 27, he's starting to run out of time before some younger prospect passes him by.

''I definitely need to make the most of the opportunity given me, no doubt about that,'' Larson said. ''And I plan on doing that. I've got a lot of years left playing.''

First, he has to heal.

The Reds put him on the disabled list because they wanted him to get more at-bats before he plays, a move he expected and dreaded. Larson was downcast after getting the news, thinking about how he was going to miss out on the season opener against the Chicago Cubs.

''It's real disappointing that I couldn't be out there on opening day,'' he said. ''I've been thinking about that day forever. But you have to have at-bats. You can't just go out there cold turkey and face Kerry Wood.''

He also has to figure out how to escape the cloud that follows him wherever he goes.

Before his first at-bat in a minor league game on Tuesday, Larson stood next to home plate in the bullpen as a Reds minor leaguer warmed up, working on his timing as he watched the pitches go by.

The young pitcher got nervous and let one slip, nailing Larson on the left wrist. It left a welt that added to the legacy.

''I was just standing in there trying to read some pitches and end up getting smoked on the wrist,'' Larson said. ''Like I said, it's just freak things.''