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For nine years Brian Daubach ignored all the signs that he wasn't destined to be a major leaguer. The first came in June 1990, when he wasn't drafted until the 17th round, at which point the Mets chose the slow-footed, 200-pound first baseman with a shaky glove and little power. "I hit doubles, but not a lot of home runs," says Daubach, who in his first five seasons in the minors hit 81 of the former but only 23 of the latter. "Being a first baseman who doesn't run or hit homers doesn't make you a major league player."
Daubach also discovered that he had trouble sleeping on buses—a serious flaw for anyone hoping to hang on in the minors long enough to reach the bigs. Still, he would spend nine-plus years busing around the bushes, playing 974 games in the Mets', Marlins' and Red Sox' systems. Then came the ultimate bad career omen: Daubach was released last fall by lowly Florida, two months after finishing his most productive Triple A season and being named the Marlins' Organizational Player of the Year. "They had a lot of young lefthanded hitters over there," says Daubach, who when he wasn't playing winter ball in recent off-seasons worked at a sporting goods store in his hometown of Belleville, Ill. "In 1997, when they were loaded, I was too young. Last year I was too old."
The 27-year-old Daubach has been just right for the Red Sox this year, having ably filled the hole at first base left by Mo Vaughn's free-agent departure. Through Sunday he was hitting .317 with 19 home runs and 70 RBIs—power numbers very close to the 21 homers and 76 RBIs Vaughn had put up with the Angels. With a team-leading seven dingers and 27 RBIs in August, Daubach had vaulted from obscurity into the American League Rookie of the Year race.
Considering that he was hours from signing to play in Japan when Boston general manager Dan Duquette invited him to spring training last December, Daubach would probably have been thrilled with far less spectacular results. "For about the first half of the year I was hoping they wouldn't call me in the office and send me down," he says. "I was just happy to be here."
He's there because halfway through his minor league career he reinvented himself, evolving from that double-happy spray hitter into a batter with enough pop to satisfy the power demands of his position. By focusing on pulling the ball, Daubach began to increase his homers; in 1996 he hit 22 for Double A Binghamton, and last year he led the International League with 35. "Every hitter matures, and some take longer than others," says Red Sox first base coach Dave Jauss, who twice managed Daubach in the Dominican league and who persuaded Duquette to sign him. "Brian's one of the guys who stuck around long enough for it to happen."
The seasoning he received in more than 3,000 minor league at bats has been a boon to Boston. Daubach almost single-handedly kept the Red Sox in the wild-card race with a six-homer, 23-RBI binge over a 10-game, eight-win stretch in August. That tear included a dramatic two-out, bases-loaded double in the bottom of the ninth that beat Oakland 6-5 on Aug. 16. It came two days after a 5-for-5, six-RBI night in a win over the Mariners. "He's down-to-earth and poised. Nothing changed about him when he came up," says Jauss. "The real adjustment will be if he ever goes back down."
Right now, all the signs say that's not going to happen.