Health still the key for Florida’s Floyd

Back in 1997, Barry Bonds looked at a young left fielder and liked what he saw so much that he told more than a few baseball reporters that the kid reminded him of himself.

Like Bonds, the kid could run. He was a pretty darn good fielder, too. And he could hit the long ball. Oh, could he hit the long ball. Others comparisons to Willie McCovey were not exaggerated, not with one prodigious shot after another.

That player was former Montreal Expos prodigy Cliff Floyd.

Unfortunately, fans haven’t been able to take many long looks at the Florida Marlins left fielder over the years. Hounded by an injury bug the size of a rhino, Floyd, 27, has spent his career dealing with various injuries that have placed him on the disabled list six times, kept him out of games numerous other times, and robbed fans of seeing this five-tool wonder.

There was the fractured left wrist in 1995, the pulled left hamstring (twice) in 1997, the medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee and the tear of his right Achilles’ tendon in 1999, and the tear of the medial meniscus in his left knee in 2000. Remove his only healthy season in 1998 — when he played 153 games and stole 27 bases, hit 22 home runs and knocked in 90 — and Floyd has played in just 497 games in six seasons starting in 1994.

In his seven full seasons, 1998 was the only year he had more than 425 at bats.

To say the guy has been snakebit is an understatement. Every time it looked like Floyd would dodge an oncoming pain and would be ready to move past the doorstep of fulfilling his enormous potential, they had to update his medical chart.

If only he could stay healthy became his mantra. If only he could stay healthy, if only he could …

But so far this year, knock on wood, Floyd has been healthy, and fans are seeing what they’ve been missing. At the top of his game instead of under a surgeon’s knife, he’s off to the best start of his career, hitting .322 in 17 games, with 17 runs scored, a .542 slugging percentage, a .431 on-base percentage, four home runs and 12 RBI. As a reminder to his powerful past, each of his home runs could have awakened the dead, all traveling more than 400 feet.

“I feel comfortable up at the plate,” Floyd said. “I’m more relaxed up there, and that comes with getting to know the pitchers and piling up the at-bats.”

His 2001 start is a continuation of last year when Floyd ended the 2000 season on a tear (.320, nine homers in September) after returning, of course, from the disabled list. In just 121 games — and 420 at-bats — he finished the season batting .300 with 22 home runs and 91 RBI.

Again, it looks like Floyd has turned the corner away from the ER. In fact, the November surgery to his right wrist, in which tendons were repaired and scar tissue was removed, hasn’t come back to haunt him and put him on the DL shelf again.

Floyd has resigned himself to the fact that he is injury-prone and doesn’t get angry anymore when he is described that way. He has grown from each visit to the DL, channeling his energy into recovery instead of sorrow, accepting life’s fate instead crying over it.

Along the way, he has come to understand that there are times when a ballplayer should take risks and times when he shouldn’t. He still plays the game hard, but he knows that diving for a ball in the outfield, or stealing a base, or trying to stretch a single into a double might not be the best route to take. He knows how important it is to the Marlins for him to stay healthy and play every day.

There never has been any question about Floyd’s ability. Only now, he’s a much more polished and wiser player than he was in 1997 when Bonds and others got a glimpse of him.

Now, if only he can stay healthy, if only he can stay healthy, if only he can …

Below the radar: Maybe this segment should be titled “Lighting up the radar.”

That’s what Colt Griffin is doing in front of hundreds of baseball scouts these days in the small town of Marshall, Texas. The 6-4, 200-pound senior right-hander is hitting 98, 99 and yes, 100 on the radar for his Marshall High team and could be the No. 1 pick June 5 in the major league amateur draft.

Some older scouts have even said Griffin has the best arm in the history of the draft. Griffin is believed to be the first in the history of high school baseball to reach 100 mph. Roger Clemens never hit 100 on the radar when he was in high school. Neither did Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson.

And this is from a guy who last year, despite throwing serious heat, couldn’t even crack the pitching staff. Moreover, he was one bad start away from never pitching again for his high school team this season after his first outing lasted only 2-plus innings. His biggest obstacle on the mound was the strike zone — he couldn’t find it often enough.

But a short trip across the Louisiana border to face a top hurler from the Bayou State ignited Griffin and charged up his arm. He has won his last six starts, allowed just 12 hits and struck out 78 in 43 innings this year.

While the scouts are drooling, they realize there are no guarantees when it comes to projecting 18-year-olds. Remember, the Texas Rangers took David Clyde of Westchester High (Texas) with the No. 1 overall pick in 1973 and rushed him to the majors less than a month later. He flamed out and ended his brief major league career with an 18-33 record.

But still, come on, 100 on the radar!

Stay tuned.

Chatter: New York Mets left-hander Al Leiter underwent an MRI exam Saturday and has a strained elbow that will likely force him to miss his scheduled start Thursday. … After the Texas Rangers traded for Randy Velarde and signed free agents Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti in the offseason, critics pounced, saying the team was negligent in its need to upgrade its pitching. So far, the critics are right: Texas has a major league-worst team ERA of 6.67. … Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki went 0-for-4 Saturday, ending his Mariners rookie-record hitting streak at 15 games. … When Philadelphia’s Travis Lee took Greg Maddux deep Saturday night, it was the first home run the Atlanta ace had allowed in 67 2/3 innings. It was also the first earned run he had allowed in the last 23 2/3 innings. … San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday because of a strained right hamstring. It is the 10th time Gwynn has gone on the DL in his career. He was limited to just 36 games last season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Incidentally, earlier this week, when both Gwynn, 40, and Rickey Henderson, 42, started in the outfield in the same game, it was the first time since 1945 that two 40-year-olds started a game in the same outfield. … The Oakland Athletics are rumored to be talking to Boston about little-used slugger Dante Bichette. … Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome, who was hitting .125, capped “Jim Thome Bobblehead Day” at Jacobs Field Saturday by hitting a game-winning, two-run homer in the 11th inning in a 5-4 win over the Detroit Tigers. … Speaking of the Indians, the team is holding special ceremonies Sunday at Jacobs Field to honor the club’s major league record of 455 consecutive home sellouts that started June 12, 1995 and ended April 2 of this year. The number 455 will be retired and placed in the right-field mezzanine, next to the club’s other retired numbers. … Boston Red Sox third baseman John Valentin, who has been rehabbing his injured left knee, could join the team in New York Sunday. Valentin played in games for Class AAA Pawtucket earlier this week. … Left-hander Terry Mulholland, who sprained a knee ligament in his first Pittsburgh start and was expected to be out four to six weeks, came off the disabled list Friday and joined the team. … With Cincinnati’s Barry Larkin hitting a grand slam on Friday, Seattle’s Mark McLemore leads all active players with 4,914 at-bats without one. Teammate Stan Javier is second with 4,784. … Kansas City’s bullpen woes apparently haven’t gone away despite the acquisition of closer Roberto Hernandez, the player the team got for left fielder Johnny Damon. Hernandez blew two of his first five save opportunities and has a 12.38 ERA. The Royals blew four saves on a recent six-game road trip. … Deion Sanders is hitting .453 for Class AAA Louisville, the Cincinnati Reds’ top affiliate, and could be called up to the team when he becomes eligible to play in the majors on May 1. … San Francisco Giants right-handed reliever Tim Worrell, whom the team acquired in a trade with the Cubs for third baseman Bill Mueller, retired 27 of the first 32 batters he faced this season.