Small towns suit Elarton just fine

Small towns suit Elarton just fine

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- You won't find Scott Elarton complaining about having Spring Training in Winter Haven.

While many of his teammates stay up to an hour away from Chain of Lakes Park, simply to be close to the big-city options afforded by Orlando or Tampa, Elarton is quite happy here.

Well, actually, the 32-year-old Elarton, a non-roster invitee to Indians camp who is trying to make the club as a reliever, does have one complaint about this town of about 28,000 people.

"This place is too big," Elarton said. "Way too big. I'm sure I'm the only one here who feels that way."

Elarton, his wife, Laurie, and their two kids spend the offseason in Karval, Colo., an unincorporated town about 78 miles east of Colorado Springs. In the 2000 census, Karval had 672 residents.

"I don't know if you could even call it a town," Elarton said with a smile. "There's a school that has 65 kids, K through 12. And there's a post office. And there's a brand new restaurant, which I love, because if you want to go out to eat [anywhere else], it's an hour and a half drive."

A similar drive is necessary for the bare essentials, such as groceries. And you better have gas for that commute, because the nearest gas station to Karval is about 35 miles away. It's little wonder, then, that Elarton has a gas tank on his property.

What is a big league pitcher -- a guy who won 17 games for the Astros in 2000 and pitched in the Indians' and Royals' rotations in recent years -- doing in the middle of nowhere?

"My wife grew up in that area," he said. "There was a ranch for sale that borders my brother-in-law's place, and we just went for it. We didn't know if we'd like it or not."

As it turns out, the Elartons love it. They're both from small towns in Colorado, so Karval suits them.

"It's totally the opposite of what I have during the season," Elarton said. "During the season, you're in the downtown of every major city in the country. In the offseason, I stay as far away as I can. We've been there about three years. It's quiet, nobody bothers you and there's good people out there, too."

While Elarton likes his winters quiet, he came to camp looking to make some noise.

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When the Indians signed Elarton to a Minor League deal in February, it was believed they were doing so as a favor to an old friend, so that he could essentially audition for scouts from other clubs. Soon after pitchers and catchers reported, however, manager Eric Wedge began naming Elarton as a candidate for the seventh and final spot in the Tribe's bullpen.

Elarton, who is 56-60 with a 5.31 ERA in his career and pitched in the Tribe rotation in '04 and '05, has generally been a pleasant surprise this spring. He had a rough outing Tuesday against the Tigers, but his ERA in 8 1/3 innings over five appearances is 2.16.

"My outlook hasn't changed, because I came down here fully intending to make the team," Elarton said. "But I was a little bit surprised with the way I felt. It's probably just a matter of being a year and a half removed from [the last] surgery. That's usually the magical time. I've just got to keep pushing."

When doctors performed that latest surgery in August '06, they were noncommittal on Elarton's chances of making a full recovery, from a pitching standpoint.

"They just said, 'We really don't know what's going to happen, but good luck,'" Elarton recalled with a smile. "They didn't sound extremely encouraged."

But Elarton, who is competing with Tom Mastny and fellow invitees Jorge Julio, Rick Bauer and Matt Ginter for that last spot in the 'pen, is encouraged by what he sees this spring. And he has no qualms about injuries leading him to return to relief work, which he hasn't done at the big league level since 1999.

"I've always had an aggressive mentality, so there's really no change from starting to relieving," he said. "I really wasn't holding anything back as a starter."

Nor is Elarton holding any ill feelings about being in small-town Florida for a couple months.

"I would never go to the city if I didn't have to," he said.

But he'd love to return to Cleveland.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.