GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the case of Scott Elbert's mysterious disappearance last year, he can clear up at least this:It wasn't drugs, it wasn't alcohol, it wasn't a brush with the law. It was life itself. It was a 25-year-old trying to live up to expectations, trying to be a professional baseball player, trying to be a loving husband and father of two. It was a small-town Midwesterner on a bumpy road to who-knows-where, six years after signing for a $1.575 million bonus, three years after needing surgery on his shoulder and then watching fellow first-rounders Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley sail on to stardom. It was, in Elbert's words, the pressure.
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"The pressure is the hardest part," said Elbert, who left the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes last June (after a one-game callup to Los Angeles) to address what the club called "personal issues."Elbert said he came to camp this spring a better man. Without offering many details, Elbert said his head is now clear and his arm is sound and he's ready to take on those expectations, for better or worse. "I'm a better person, better for my family and everything like that, more pleasant to be around, instead of worrying about staying in the big leagues," said Elbert. "If it happens, it happens. A lot of people are made for it and cope with it. For some guys, it's easy. Some guys like me have to learn how to deal with it. Playing the game is the easiest part. "It was an eye-opener for me and made me realize the importance of life. I just had to get my life straightened out. There was no other way of dealing with it, to get the help I needed. Maybe the little things were too hard to handle. Now I know how to handle certain situations and cope with certain things. You can look at a lot of careers and there are bumps in the road. It's not a perfect life for anybody." Elbert credits assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted the lefty in the first round in 2004, with an assist. "Logan got me who I needed to be with," Elbert said, choosing not to elaborate. "He cares a lot about us. We're like kids to him." White said a key for Elbert is backing away from his tendency to beat himself up. "He's such a perfectionist, he wants to be great in every phase -- as a pitcher, as a husband, as a father," said White. "That's the problem with the perfectionist mentality, it carries over to the personal life. His intentions are admirable. He feels the family is more important than anything. When Scotty left last year, it was to make sure his family was OK, and he needed time to himself to get mentally in order. "This game, you can get out of your comfort zone. It can be tough for a small-town kid to go into the glare of this or that. Then he sees Clayton and Bills doing great and he knows he's got the ability and he's hard on himself. It's all about Scotty Elbert mentally not being a house divided against himself." Elbert simply left the Isotopes on June 9 and went home to Arizona. He tried to return to the field by working out at the Dodgers' Camelback Ranch-Glendale in time to rejoin the team in August, only to be shut down with shoulder tendinitis. He recovered and pitched for Don Mattingly in the Arizona Fall League, developing a personal rapport with the new manager while reminding the club why it drafted him out of Seneca, Mo. The club, in turn, decided Elbert should pitch exclusively out of the bullpen, instead of the yo-yo handling of past years when he would start in the Minor Leagues but be used in relief during his six Major League callups over the last three seasons. In a one-inning appearance on Saturday against the Angels, Elbert showed the good and bad, striking out two but also walking two in a scoreless inning. He's trying to win a job as the second lefty reliever behind Hong-Chih Kuo (if the Dodgers keep two), with non-roster lefty Ron Mahay his top competition. "It's a lot easier to throw 15 pitches per day than 110, 120 every five days," said Elbert. "I like to throw every day. I'm a maximum-effort guy. I think relief suits me well. I was made to be a relief pitcher in reality because of my high pitch counts as a starter. Now that I know, I can focus on that, worry about getting three outs and not 27." White wants Elbert to stop worrying. "Scotty's always been blessed by physical ability, a first-round pick, the money, has a beautiful wife, two wonderful kids," White said. "He's also from a small town in the Midwest and he comes to L.A. with the limelight and even in the Minor Leagues with the travel and he's missing his family. One thing he needed to understand is that he can be all those things, be on the road, still be a good husband and father. "We sacrifice a lot in this business, traveling, missing watching our kids grow up. To the outside world, it all looks wonderful. But we have people we want to be with that we miss, normal stuff that other people get to do. Scotty's tough on himself. You never fail in school, you're always the star, always get it done, the kid everybody can count on. You can carry that weight on your back. You're the one everybody expects everything from, even carrying the weight of your community. There's pressure not wanting to let anyone down. He's learning that nobody is perfect."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.