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So far, Kerry Wood has been pain free. He takes the ball and lets go and there is no persistent reminder that his elbow was rebuilt. No lingering fear it might go pop again.

But Wood has yet to throw a curveball during workouts in Arizona, the ultimate test of his elbow that ruptured in spring training a year ago and had to be rebuilt through "Tommy John" surgery.

"I won't do that until spring training," said the 22-year-old Wood, who has been throwing off a mound for about a month. "It will be another test for me. The fastball, I've got my velocity back a little bit. So next it's the curveballs," Wood said.

Wood, appearing at the Cubs' annual winter convention, said he hopes to be ready for opening day, but the Cubs are going to be cautious with the former NL Rookie of the Year, who is signed for one year at $690,000.

"When he's ready, we will know it," Cubs General Manager Ed Lynch said. "We are not going to look too far ahead. We re-evaluate at the end of each week where he is."~ Around the horn

Country singer Garth Brooks, 37, who hit .045 for the San Diego Padres last spring (1 for 22), has talked to the New York Mets about joining them for training at Port St. Lucie, Fla. Brooks, 37, also is considering the New York Yankees.

The Baltimore Orioles' total bill for the three years of baseball's luxury tax was $10,643,897. The New Yankees were second at $9,919,651, followed by Los Angeles at $2,712,672, Boston at $2,205,960 and Cleveland at $2,065,496.

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