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IT'S KARROS' TOUGHEST YEAR.

Byline: Matt McHale Daily News Staff Writer

Jimmy, a first-time caller from Eagle Rock, is a long-time Dodger hater.

It's 5:30 in the afternoon, the Randy Johnson trade is called off and Jimmy is ranting on Joe McDonnell's sports talk show on 1150-AM. McDonnell is doing his program from the home dugout at Dodger Stadium and listeners aren't talking about the World Cup.

From Hideo Nomo to Rupert Murdoch to that Fox guy ``Chevy Chase,'' who made the big Mike Piazza deal, Jimmy wants the Dodgers exposed. He wants Eric Karros out and Mo Vaughn in.

Jimmy lobbed a few more insults into his car phone before driving through a tunnel and out of range. As Karros walked out for batting practice moments later, McDonnell joked, ``You're gonna look great in a Boston uniform.''

Karros turned and gave the smile that has graced magazine covers and TV commercials during his six years with the Dodgers.

It's a smile rarely seen anymore.

Karros, the voice of the team since taking over at first base in the middle of the 1992 season, has lowered his profile in the past year.

Karros spends most of his pre-game and post-game time rehabilitating a surgically repaired left knee. Since the middle of the 1997 season, in which he reached 30 homers and 100 RBI for the third concessive year, Karros has had little to cheer.

``Let's face it, he misses me,'' Piazza said Thursday from Florida, where his new team, the New York Mets, were playing one of his old new teams, the Florida Marlins. ``He misses laughing. He has just kind of taken a new approach in his career. He wants to be more to himself. There is nothing wrong with that.''

Karros is 30 now, in the second year of a five-year contract that will pay him $5 million this year. He enters tonight's series opener against Colorado with four homers and 23 RBI. He is getting married in November.

But there have been several incidents that could easily have changed his perspective.

When he blasted teammate Ismael Valdes in May 1997 after a particularly timid performance, Karros was the one who heard the boos.

The Dodgers failed to reach the playoffs and have not won a postseason game since 1988. Karros was a leader on a team where poor chemistry was part of the problem.

He was left unprotected by the Dodgers during last November's expansion draft.

He saw his close friends Piazza and Billy Ashley leave the team. ``It just seemed the Mike Piazza era ended in like 24 hours,'' he said. ``But that is baseball. It is a game of adjustments.''

He lost his cleanup spot in the order to newcomer Bobby Bonilla, whose left-handed bat was considered vital. Karros returned to the cleanup spot 11 days ago after Bonilla slumped. He is batting .305 during that span.

And then the knee injury, which ended a consecutive-game streak at 262. Although he returned just a month after doctors repaired cartilage damage and removed bone chips, Karros came back with a pronounced limp. Last week against St. Louis, fans booed when he didn't dive to make a catch in foul territory.

It raised concerns that his knee is worse than he lets on. Karros does not deny that the knee, first injured in spring training, had very little cartilage left even before the surgery.

But he refused to say the events of the past year have changed him or his effort on the field.

``Certainly things are different, no one would dispute that,'' Karros said. ``I am still the same guy. I'm just in the trainers room so much, I don't get quoted as much. If you want to wait an hour after the game, I'll say whatever you want.''

He doesn't back down on the decision to criticize of Valdes.Karros now realizes that fans didn't want to hear from a guy who also was struggling. Although he played all 162 games last year, he had just 22 RBI in the first two months.

``If you are going to be a leader in the clubhouse, you have to be one when you are going bad, just like when you are going well,'' he said. ``To do otherwise would not be honest. I know that is an approach that can be second- guessed, but you have to be that way.''

Especially in a clubhouse with so many new faces. Bonilla was acquired for his outgoing manner as much as his switch-hitting power.

``I haven't been around enough to get a sense of all the personalities,'' Karros said. ``Do we miss Mike? Yes, but we have added a lot of quality people.''

Karros' decision to come back so quickly from his injury has also raised some eyebrows.

Scheduled to miss two months, Karros was back in one. Doctors weren't surprised, knowing his work ethic. Before the surgery, there was more swelling than pain. Afterward, he hopped on an exercise bike and just kept going.

Karros says now that he probably should have taken two or three months off, ``But I'm not going to do that now,'' he said. ``I guess that is my excessive, compulsive nature coming out.''

Team orthopedist Frank Jobe, who assisted Dr. Ralph Gambardella on the 2-1/2-hour procedure in late March, sees the competitive nature of athletes daily.

Unlike the shoulder surgery he performed Thursday on Dodgers outfielder Todd Hollandsworth, Jobe said Karros was able to come back quicker because the knee had more support.

``I am always concerned,'' Jobe said. ``But he didn't have much pain and much swelling before. The body's mechanism is telling him something. When he has to really turn it on right now, that can be a problem. But we wouldn't let him out there if we thought he could do further damage.''

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Photo

Photo: Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros says recent events, including his injury and Mike Piazza's trade, haven't brought him down.

Terri Thuente/Daily News
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 12, 1998
Words:998
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