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Tuesday, June 20, 2006 - Page updated at 05:59 PM

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Former M's prospect really cookin' now

Seattle Times staff reporter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Anderson still has his dreams.

They are just different dreams now, which he nurtures at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Dreams of owning a string of steak restaurants, designing innovative menus and overseeing the hustle and bustle of a thriving kitchen as executive chef.

At age 26, Anderson has finally stopped waiting for the vitality to return to his once-magical left arm, the arm that the Mariners fully expected to make him their ace of the 21st century.

Instead, during an agonizing four-year ordeal, Anderson descended from the top pitching prospect in the major leagues to a guy kicking around the lowest levels of the minor leagues, hoping against hope for his shoulder pain to go away.

The Mariners thought they had the next Randy Johnson when they drafted Anderson in June 1997. And Anderson, a hard-throwing 6-foot-10 lefty like his idol Johnson, was happy to fuel the comparisons.

He told reporters at his introductory Kingdome news conference, "I feel I'll be the best-known pitcher in baseball when I'm done." He believed it, and — not so openly but just as fervently — so did the Mariners.

That was three shoulder surgeries and more than a thousand days of rehab ago. That was the old Ryan Anderson, the blustery and ultra-confident "Little Unit."

He made veteran M's players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner shake their heads at his audacity when he bragged, after his first stint throwing batting practice in spring training of 1998, how he "dominated" Seattle's star-studded lineup. His quotes were highlighted and displayed all over the Peoria, Ariz., clubhouse.

"I threw 60 balls and one was put in play by A-Rod," he said. "I was like, 'Shoot, they don't have a chance.' I didn't prove anything right there. That was their first time seeing live pitching. I expressed myself the wrong way."

The next day, when Anderson arrived at the Peoria training complex, trainer Rick Griffin warned him to be ready. Griffey and friends were on the warpath.

"Every day I came in," Anderson recalled, "Griffey was sitting there in the front, with his hat backward, just waiting for me to come through the door. 'Oh, The Dominator is here. The best pitcher ever.' I had to sit there. You can't say a word. Day in and day out.

"It's funny now, but it put me through misery. The cool thing is, David Segui came up to me after the first day and said, 'Hang in there. Everyone likes you ... but you did dominate us.' That made me feel so much better."

Anderson was stamped for stardom, a Baseball America golden boy. In November 1997, Mariners minor-league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick said matter-of-factly, "He may already have the best stuff in baseball ... I mean, anywhere in baseball. Right up there with Randy and Roger Clemens, the best of them."

Amazingly, Anderson seemed to be backing it all up as he sped up the minor-league ladder, dominating every step. That is, until his start for Tacoma against Calgary on July 16, 2000 — the date is seared in Anderson's brain — when he hit 99 mph on the gun, and struck out 13.

He woke up the next morning thinking he had slept on his arm wrong.

"I couldn't even throw," he said.

Anderson didn't know it yet, but that was the end of the major-league portion of his dream. His arm, the source of so many Mariners fantasies (and trade offers they refused to entertain), would never be the same again. The Mariners finally released him in April 2005. He never pitched in a major-league game for them, or for anyone else.

Now Anderson watches former minor-league teammates like Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro achieve major-league success — and major-league paydays — and can't help but wonder what might have been.

"I was supposedly better than them — quote unquote, better than them," he said wistfully. "I mean, I know I was, but I didn't pan out to be."

His arm would tease him with pain-free stretches, most recently last summer for the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers took a flier after the Mariners released him, and assigned him to their lowest farm team, in Brevard County, Fla. But the pain always came back, and finally, last September, Anderson told the Brewers he had reached the end of the line.

His uniform now is the loose white smock and chef's headgear of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Since April 3, Anderson has been immersed in the 27-month bachelor's program he hopes will launch him into the sort of entrepreneurial stardom that eluded him on the diamond.

"I'm still a rookie, still a freshman," he said, smiling. "I like the pressure. You have to get things done in a certain amount of time. You have to be able to multi-task. I like that. I don't like to do one thing, the monotony of it. I like the variety of this ... and I love food."

Sitting in a conference room at the institute's bustling Camelback campus, where the oppressive 114-degree heat hardly slows down the 1,100 would-be chefs and restaurateurs, Anderson seems genuinely excited about his new life.

"I never thought I'd be in the culinary route," he said. "I always thought I'd be playing professional baseball."

In the deep recesses of his mind, Anderson still allows himself to dream that old baseball dream.

"I told my parents when I decided to retire that after I graduate, I'll give it a try again," he said. "It [retirement] ain't final."

He can't quite let baseball go, because Anderson knows how close — how excruciatingly, maddeningly close — he came to backing up every one of his boasts.

He'll always have the Phillies exhibition game to remind him. The memory is vivid, etched forever in his brain as if a permanent video loop is running. Last week, when he recounted that outing, which was played at Safeco Field on the Sunday before the season opener in 2000, tears welled up in his eyes and his voice cracked. He apologized.

"When I came out from the bullpen in relief, and everyone stood up, it was emotional for me," he said. "It brought tears."

It still does. Anderson was brilliant, seemingly justifying every rave, backing every boast. Scott Rolen went down on a 95 mph fastball. Mike Lieberthal was frozen by a 90 mph slider on the corner. In four innings, Anderson allowed no runs and two hits, fanning six. It was domination, and the Phillies seemed in awe of this towering kid.

In his mind, that game remains his validation, his measuring stick of what could have been. It makes him ache, sure, but it simultaneously soothes the pain of never making it to The Show.

"If I didn't get that exhibition game, I would say the regret would be more," he said.

There had been much speculation that spring that the Mariners would put Anderson in their 2000 rotation, but Seattle brass decided he needed more seasoning at Class AAA.

Anderson said he wasn't particularly upset. After all, he was just 20 years old. He had time, plenty of it.

"I thought I had my whole career in front of me," he said. "Way in front of me."

But then came July, and the ailing shoulder, followed by surgeries in 2001 and 2002 and 2003, and the endless rehabs and constant disappointment. The word in the Mariners organization was that, at least initially, Anderson didn't work hard enough on his recovery.

"My first year, yes, I was very lazy," he acknowledged. "I took things for granted. Everything I did in sports, academically, I was always in the top of my class. After surgery, I'm like, 'It's going to come back. I'll just do the bare minimum.'

"Because that's what I've always done, and I've never had to try hard. I wish I could take that year back, let me say that."

Anderson believes that he slowly came to understand and embrace the dedication necessary for rehab. "By the third year, from that point on, I worked my butt off," he said.

Now he is working hard again, with visions of culinary success as the motivation.

"He really brings a sense of leadership to the classroom," said Jon-Paul Hutchins, executive chef at Scottsdale Culinary Institute. "He's an outstanding student."

For a while, during the lowest points of his rehab, Anderson couldn't even watch baseball. But now the twangs have declined. Oh, occasionally he'll see someone that he owned in the minors thriving in the majors, and he can't help but play the "what if" game.

"Not guys that I was better than ... guys that I could have been better than. That does hurt," he said.

But that was another life. He has a new one now.

"I want to start off with something small, and I want to get a few more restaurants," he said. "I don't want to just have that one. I want to succeed at that one, learn and expand."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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