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Norton out to prove 2006 was no fluke

Norton out to prove that '06 was no fluke

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Greg Norton's 2007 season did not unfold as planned.

After putting together a solid 2006 campaign that saw him hit .296 with a career-high 17 home runs in 294 at-bats, the veteran hoped to settle in as an integral piece of the Rays' puzzle.

And the Rays hoped so, too.

Norton's approach worked well. He never gave away at-bats, he worked hard and he'd been around -- all good things to bring to a clubhouse where most of the guys shaved once or twice a week.

Then Norton hurt his right knee in Spring Training, which required surgery, and he hurt his left elbow while trying to make a tag. The latter injury lingered all season, and for most of the first half he played in pain. In the second half, he found a way to deal with his elbow and managed to end with a flurry. After spending much of the season with his average below the Mendoza line, Norton finished at .243 with four home runs and 23 RBIs; he hit .345 in August and .293 in September to do so.

He then reported to the doctor's office, specifically Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., where he had surgery to his left elbow that removed five loose bodies (the nomenclature for said items once was "bone chips") and they transposed the ulnar nerve.

Norton said Andrews' waiting room resembled a who's who of sports when he was there, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams. Typical of Norton's self-depreciating humor, which plays like Rodney Dangerfield's "I get no respect" shtick, he noted dryly during a telephone interview from his home in Denver: "I didn't need the star treatment and my own waiting room."

At age 35, recovering from surgery is not what a veteran player wants to be going through, particularly when the club he plays for holds a $1 million option for the 2008 season -- which must be picked up by Nov. 15, or he can become a free agent -- and the appearance is that he's not healthy. However, Norton is realistic about his situation and feels good about having the surgery.

"I know I'm a long shot to come back, even though I'd like to," Norton said. "I'll most likely have to make the team or a team. So I wanted to get everything taken care of [in the elbow] so there won't be any hiccups [in the 2008 season]. I didn't want them to leave anything in [the elbow]."

Norton is optimistic about the way the surgery went.

"I was happy, because I didn't have any issues after surgery," Norton said.

Initially, he had been apprehensive about the surgery because he thought the prescribed three months of recovery time meant three months of waiting before he could use the elbow. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that it meant he would be totally recovered in three months.

"They told me I could start swinging the bat by mid-December, which is two weeks earlier than I normally begin anyway," Norton said.

Now the question is out there: Will Norton be back with Tampa Bay?

The ball is in the Rays' court. If they want Norton to return in 2008, they can simply pick up his option and he'll be back -- or they can decline the option and try to re-sign him as a free agent.

Norton would like to return to the Rays and show the team the 2006 model is the real Greg Norton, rather than the dinged up 2007 version.

"My body still feels good," Norton said. "I would definitely like to come back. I don't think I'm done. I don't want to be done. I still have the fire. I still feel like I have a little left in the tank."

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

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