PLANT CITY, Fla. - Pete Schourek made his way to the pitcher's mound, and spring training suddenly turned serious.
Reds manager Ray Knight came over for a closer look. General Manager Jim Bowden climbed out of his golf cart and moved near enough to pick up the pop of the catcher's mitt. No other sound was audible, for bystanders were too busy holding their breath.
Cincinnati's pitchers and catchers suited up for their first workout of the spring Saturday morning, and the big development of the day was that Schourek's elbow did not explode. Throwing publicly for the first time since season-ending surgery last July, Schourek worked eight dramatically uneventful minutes, thereby reassuring his bosses that there is reason to go on.
''Pete looked real good,'' Knight said. ''He threw free and easy. When I saw him throw 12-15 pitches after he got loosened up, I relaxed a little bit.''
So much is riding on Schourek's left arm this spring, it's a wonder he can even lift it. Two years removed from his breakthrough season, in which he won 18 games and ran second to Greg Maddux in the National League Cy Young balloting, Schourek reported to the Reds complex as an unknown quantity.
If he can approach his 1995 numbers, the Reds should be participants in the pennant race. If his comeback is less complete, it could signal a dreary summer at Cinergy Field. Where Pete Schourek goes, Reds expectations will follow.
''If he can come anywhere close to where he was in '95, we'll be contenders all year - or should be,'' Bowden predicted.
''If he's healthy,'' said Knight. ''We're just a whole lot better ballclub.''
These are still substantial ifs. The work Schourek did Saturday was designed to expand his arm strength rather than his repertoire. He stuck strictly with his fastball, eschewing the elbow strain of breaking pitches in search of rhythm and reliability.
Consequently, it was a bad day to draw conclusions. There were no radar guns around to gauge Schourek's stuff - they would be counterproductive this early in spring training - but the barometer in the pitcher's brain told him he was throwing at about 75 percent of peak velocity.
''I've thrown off a mound four times previous to this, and I've been comfortable every time,'' Schourek said. ''So I was expecting to be able to throw. I have just that little doubt in my arm about throwing the curve ball. But if I get through that well, I'm coming, I'm ready.''
Knight said he would not care if Schourek did not throw a curve ball until mid-March. He is more interested in building stamina. A pitcher of Schourek's pedigree need not be sharp in spring training in order to make the team, so long as he shows progress.
Still, Schourek is eager to stop the suspense. He wants to throw some curve balls soon in order to see whether they throw him any curves.
''If my arm is up to it, I'd like to get that out of the way,'' he said. ''If I'm going to have a setback, I'd rather have it early.''
Elbows, unfortunately, are not elastic. They are fragile joints which pitchers bend in ways the manufacturer never intended. Jose Rijo's distinguished career is probably over because his elbow could not stand the strain from his wicked slider, and its strength could not be restored in a ligament transplant operation.
Schourek's surgery was comparatively minor. Ligaments were tightened rather than reconstructed, and some scar tissue was removed. His career can continue.
''Pete is a lot further along than most people who have had this surgery,'' Bowden said. ''When he first started throwing, I was real anxious every time the phone rang. But then he got up to 55-60 pitches and was pain-free.''
It is a gradual process, typified by small strides and major setbacks. Much as the Reds yearn to be confident of Schourek's comeback, they are careful not to project beyond the next pitch. Pitching coach Don Gullett said his plan was to keep reminding Schourek not to go too fast.
''You've got to go at a pace that's sensible,'' Gullett said Saturday. ''We're reassured that he didn't have any ill effects or pain from throwing. It's a very good first day.''