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March 10, 2011

 

MOVE OVER MARCO SCUTARO AND JED LOWRIE—THERE’S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN

Now I consider myself a baseball aficionado. But I’m not into all this new age bullshit—the numbers, the formulas, the MIT grad students ogling over Pujols’ win shares during the past decade. I know a gamer when I see one; I know the x-factor, the guy-who-has-it-all. Hello Matt Stairs. Nice to see you Craig Biggio. Wade Boggs? It’s a pleasure. And I always give a quick nod and a tip of the cap to Keith Hernandez when I pass by him at the Mirage in Vegas.

Let me propose the following scenario for you, one that involves a certain Red Sox gamer who is too easily overlooked, who, in the past, has been overwhelmingly disrespected by local media and fans.

♦◊♦

It’s June 2011. The Red Sox are facing the New York Yankees, an important early season match-up between two teams jockeying for the division lead.

Hat cocked to the side, Jon Lester stares in at Derek Jeter, shakes off ‘Tek once, twice, before nodding firmly. With glazed eyes, from the stretch, he faces Brett Gardner, who takes a short lead off first base; but the lanky lefty really doesn’t see him. All focus is on the catcher’s mitt—a cool sort of equilibrium he’s achieved since recovering from cancer, this zen-like state that allows him to devote all his energy, his entire center of gravity, to the one inch by one inch square where he intends to hurl the ball.

Lester takes a deep breath, sets, then lifts his right leg and strides towards home plate—a beautifully synchronized motion—which allows him to rip in a nice little cutter that juts over inside corner, jamming the feisty shortstop, who swings defensively.

The bat breaks, and the ball bounces past the mound, barely evading Lester’s outstretched glove.

From shortstop position, Mikey Lowell, number 25, “springs” into action. For the Alex Gonzalez’s and the Rey Ordonez’s of the league, this play would be merely routine. Routine? Mike Lowell? The only routines for “Iron Mike” Lowell are the post game ice wraps around his lower back, hamstrings, and right shoulder. That, and the post game drinks at Crossroads Irish Pub; two Jamesons, on the rocks.

As the ball rolls past the mound, Lowell staggers towards second base. He lets out a soft grunt as he braces his balky back for another stiff dive. Just as the ball looks as if it’s going slip by, a glove flails towards it, knocking it down. Flat as a washboard, he hits the dirt with a thud.

The ball rolls slowly towards the second base bag, where Dustin Pedroia—steady, reliable, accountable—snatches up the ball with cat-like reflexes, his right foot planted firmly on the base, boldly challenging Gardner’s cleat.

Gardner slides hard into Pedey, flipping the diminutive second baseman forwards, where he collapses in a heap, only to emerge from the cloud of dust holding the ball high—a trophy for all to see.

The umpire emphatically pumps his fist, signaling the out.

“Oh my!” Don Orsillo roars from the broadcast booth.

A bit dizzy, number 25 stands, pumping his fist into his glove. “Let’s go!” He barks.

“Well it isn’t easy, folks,” Remy adds. “Lowell sure is hurting out there!”

Lester, ever respectful of his elder, points in deference towards the grizzled vet.

He returns the gesture, nodding resolutely, and then, with the red sleeve of his undershirt, he wipes the mixture of saliva and dirt at the corner of his salt-and-pepper goatee.

He adjust his hat, and as a stray silver hair or two falls to the ground, he crouches, the joints of his knees creaking as he shades towards the hole, playing the next batter, slugger Evan Longoria, to pull.

“Make me quit,” his mind is buzzing. “I dare you.” He mouths those final three words—a low whisper—and it’s unclear exactly who it’s directed towards: Longoria? Tito? The Red Sox brass? Or perhaps it’s a message to the thousands of doubters who have announced his decline. He’s proven them wrong before. He did it in 2007; and now, manning the shortstop position—the unofficial field general—he’s doing it again.

“You know what, Jerry?” Orsillo pauses. “Lowell, he gets the job done.”

“That he does, Don,” Jerry Remy replies hoarsely, before breaking into one of his legendary hacking episodes—the aftereffects of years spent chain-smoking Marlboro Reds in the dugout and (later) in the broadcast booth. “That he does.”

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