WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Jody Gerut watched as the clubhouse in Chain of Lakes Park emptied in front of him. Most of the locker stalls next to his now held nothing but 2005 memories inside. Packed boxes were stacked everywhere. Slowly, one by one, players here had put away their Indians gear and moved on.

Not Gerut, though. He's remained here. He's trying to work his way back to where he longs to be -- with his teammates in the Major Leagues.

But the route to the big leagues is a long, grueling journey for athletes who are healthy. And when a player is coming off knee surgery, as Gerut is, the trek becomes more arduous than normal.

So with almost everybody having headed North, Gerut must stick around Winter Haven awhile and continue his rehab. His timetable for returning to the big leagues isn't written in permanent marker.

A good guess would be sometime in mid-June, although that's no certainty even if he were playing at full speed by then. He can't be sure that the outfield spot he once held will be there to reclaim, not with Ryan Ludwick, Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore now playing significant roles in the outfield rotation.

Besides, who knows whether the 27-year-old Gerut will ever be the gifted ballplayer he had become until his knee imploded on Sept. 17, 2004, at Jacobs Field.

To Gerut, such misgivings border on the unthinkable.

"There's no doubt I will be, at least in my own mind, the player that I was athletically," he said as he sat at a long table inside the clubhouse. "I think I'll be able to get all of my athleticism back at some point in the future.

"I just believe that's gonna happen. I definitely work hard enough to where that should happen earlier for me."

Should, but when? This season? Or next? For Gerut has heard that people can take a full 18 months to recover from the surgery he had to repair a torn ligament in his right knee.

He's also heard more disturbing tales, though not about the surgery. His friends have told him about articles that essentially labeled him a "one-season wonder." As much as he'd hoped to avoid the "sophomore slump," he didn't, which led to the label.

In one year, Gerut went from The Sporting News Rookie of the Year in 2003 to one of the game's biggest disappointments in 2004.

He started '04 in a 9-for-42 funk, and his play didn't really do an about-face. For some reason, he couldn't get his swing right, which led to a long stretch of baseball in which his average hovered near the Mendoza line.

His sophomore season wasn't supposed to play out like this. In his mind, 2004 was to build on '03, and Gerut expected to play better baseball with the experience he'd been able to bank from '03.

When Gerut didn't, the critics jumped on him. They raised questions about the validity of his numbers from his rookie season. They pointed to the fact that he'd feasted on the Tigers, who had to rally down the stretch to keep from losing 120 games. The critics wondered if Gerut was a good player. They weren't interested in why he wasn't duplicating 2003, even though Gerut told them why.

The critics didn't listen.

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"Sure, I want people to believe that I'm a good ballplayer, because that's what I believe," he said. "I want people to believe what I believe."

Unfortunately, they'll believe what they see, a fact not lost on Gerut. But they didn't see the Jody Gerut last season that they should have remembered from 2003.

That Gerut is trying to resurface. He's still working hard at the craft, still immersed in his work, still chasing the stardom that he was on the edge of achieving. So the lifting, the running and the baseball drills in extended Spring Training will be the path that he'll be traveling as he works toward a return to the Indians.

He has no shortage of motivation, he said. Young players will surround him each day, and they'll be chasing what he once had: a job in the Majors. They will look to him for advice.

"They can learn a lot from us, because I was in their shoes," Gerut said. "I feel like I was an average player who became a good player. I feel that there are reasons you can talk about why that is the case.

"If people were so inclined, we could have a conversation about that."

Much of his conversation will be with his roommate and friend Jason Stanford, a pitcher who's trying to rehab from Tommy John surgery. The two men can trade notes, mentor the younger ballplayers, and watch and root from afar for an Indians team that each started the season with in 2004.

"It's still my team; I want to keep up with the team," Gerut said. "These are my friends; these are my teammates up there. I want to be right in sync when I get back up there with them."

He just can't pinpoint when he will.