LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Rico Brogna walked past the deserted batting cages at Disney's Wide World of Sports Sunday afternoon and felt a familiar urge.
He dropped his equipment in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, grabbed his bats and headed back across the outfield toward the indoor hitting area.
"I had to take some whacks," he said. "The itch was there."
Brogna didn't meet his new teammates for the first time until Monday morning, but he already had some good news for them. The broken bone in his left wrist that sent last season into a tailspin is fully healed and, according to doctors, is stronger now than before he was hit by a pitch last May.
"I actually don't feel a thing," the first baseman said. "It feels awesome. It's the first winter in a long time that I didn't have any surgeries. This winter was free and easy."
The man who replaces Andres Galarraga, one of the club's most popular players, is a well-traveled, left-handed hitter with a ready smile and an easy-going manner.
When he's healthy, Brogna, 30, is a solid run producer and a slick defensive first baseman. The problem has been keeping him in the lineup.
"(Last year) was as testing a season for me as a season can be," he said. "I have to use it to strengthen my will."
Since making his major league debut with the Tigers in 1992 at age 22, Brogna has had so many surgeries on his shoulders and knees that doctors give him a discount as a repeat customer. Only three times during a seven-year career has he compiled more than 500 at-bats.
But, on the plus side, when he plays regularly, he puts up good numbers. As the Phillies regular first baseman in 1997, he hit 20 homers and drove in 81 runs, then matched that home run total the next season while driving in 104 runs. In 1999, he blasted a career-high 24 home runs and drove in 102 runs while hitting .278.
"He's really great defensively, and we know he's driven in 100 runs in his last two full seasons," manager Bobby Cox said. "We're not looking for Galarraga numbers in his best years. If Rico hits 18 homers and drives in 85, that's fine."
In his first stab at free agency, Brogna's timing couldn't have been worse. Hampered by his wrist, which made him a one-armed hitter after his release by the Phillies and subsequent arrival in Boston, he hit .196 for the Red Sox with one home run and eight RBI in 56 at-bats. Not surprisingly, there weren't a host of teams clamoring for his affections this winter, so when the Braves displayed some interest, he paid attention.
"When `Cat' (Galarraga) signed with Texas, I didn't sleep much that night," he said. "I asked my agent, how much do the Braves want me to pay to come and play for them? I wanted to play for them so badly. You kind of envy them when you watch from the other side."
Brogna is a career .270 hitter, but he won't hit in the middle of the lineup, as he did in Philadelphia. He'll likely be the No. 6 or No. 7 hitter, which will help balancethebottom of the lineup.
"Stats have never been my goal," he said. "If I stay healthy and play every day, those will take care of itself."
Brogna admits to struggling against left-handed pitchers in the past, but in recent years he's improved enough to start offering tips to former Brave Ryan Klesko.
"I think the reason (I improved) is because (former Phillies manager) Terry Francona let me play through some failures," Brogna said. "Now I've gotten to the point where I enjoy the challenge."
Brogna arrived at camp a day early and was greeted warmly by his new teammates. Chipper Jones gave him a big smile and a handshake. His quick bat caught Cox's eye. He took some ground balls at first base, jogged in the outfield and introduced himself to the coaching staff.
"I walk in here and there's some awe, but at the same time I feel comfortable," he said. "It's such a great opportunity."
Brogna won't match Galarraga's power, but he's a better defensive first baseman, and if he stays off the disabled list, he might match Galarraga's 100 RBI. If that's all he does, the Braves will be satisfied.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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