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Caminiti ready for opening day

March 31, 1997

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ After stitching up Ken Caminiti’s left shoulder on Oct. 9, surgeons said he might be out until July.

The repair job on Caminiti’s badly damaged rotator cuff was great. It’s just that the timetable for his return was off by about three months.

``I’m very happy where I’m at. I’m way ahead of schedule,″ said Caminiti, the unanimous 1996 NL MVP who will trot out to third base Tuesday when the San Diego Padres open the season against the New York Mets.

Caminiti had been saying since December that he hoped to be ready for opening day. There were few, if any, doubters among the Padres that he’d be ready, although they certainly didn’t want him to rush back or to dive for balls hit to his left during spring training.

``I have to be smart,″ said Caminiti, who set Padres records last year with 40 homers and 130 RBIs, and won his second straight Gold Glove award. ``My goal is to start the season and finish the season, with very little time off in between. But I know I’m going to have to have some days off.″

The Padres will open defense of their NL West title, which they won over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th inning of 1996 season finale. They were 91-71 under Bruce Bochy, the NL manager of the year, and Tony Gwynn won his seventh batting title.

Some 46,600 tickets were sold by last Wednesday, the earliest opening day sellout since 1985, when the Padres were coming off their only World Series appearance. Of course, it helped that capacity at Jack Murphy Stadium _ soon to be renamed Qualcomm Stadium _ is down some 13,000 because of the ongoing construction work to accommodate stadium expansion for the NFL’s Chargers.

Cranes will be lurking beyond the outfield during the season, but construction work will stop during games.

Tuesday’s starters will be New York’s Pete Harnisch (8-12 in 1996) and Joey Hamilton (15-9), the new ace of San Diego’s staff.

The Padres will open the season with Rickey Henderson on the bench, squeezed out of the crowded outfield in favor of slugger Greg Vaughn. Henderson remains on the trading block, but the Padres have little leverage until an outfielder for another team is injured or fails to meet management’s expectations. Henderson’s contract calls for $2 million in salary and a possible $1.5 million in incentives.

One guy who won’t be even on the bench is Hideki Irabu, the star Japanese pitcher whose negotiating rights belong to the Padres. When Irabu hadn’t been traded to the New York Yankees by his self-imposed deadline, he returned to Japan. The Mets are one of four teams that have made strong offers to the Padres for Irabu’s rights.

Missing for the Mets (71-91 last year) is their highly touted but injured trio of young pitchers, Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson. None will be on the roster for opening day.

Pulsipher (left elbow surgery last April) and Isringhausen (right arm and shoulder operations last September) are still recovering and starting the season at Triple-A. Wilson, a former No. 1 overall pick in the draft, underwent surgery on his right shoulder in November, and there’s no telling when he’ll pitch again in the majors.

It was Wilson who allowed two home runs by Caminiti on Aug. 18 in Monterrey, Mexico, shortly after a dehydrated Caminiti required two liters of IV fluid. That performance helped launch Caminiti toward MVP.

Hamilton, who hasn’t missed a start since his callup in May 1994, gets his first opening day assignment.

``I think I deserved it,″ Hamilton said. ``I’m the only guy on the staff that’s been out there every fifth day since I’ve been here.″

Last year’s opening day starter, Andy Ashby, is healthy after spending three stints on the disabled list with a shoulder injury that needed postseason surgery. Ashby, 9-5 last year, will start Wednesday night against Mark Clark (14-11).

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