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LATE & GREAT
TOM VERDUCCI
October 01, 2007
SUMMER'S OVER, BUT THE HEAT'S BEING TURNED UP ON SOME OF THE GAME'S BIGGEST STARS AS THEY TAKE THE OCTOBER STAGE. JONATHAN PAPELBON'S REPLY: BRING IT
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October 01, 2007

Late & Great

SUMMER'S OVER, BUT THE HEAT'S BEING TURNED UP ON SOME OF THE GAME'S BIGGEST STARS AS THEY TAKE THE OCTOBER STAGE. JONATHAN PAPELBON'S REPLY: BRING IT

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SPRING TRAINING is a good reason why starting pitchers tend to boast the lowest golf handicaps in baseball. Given that their craft requires four times as much rest as labor, the bulk of their spring days pass for idylls of the privileged, blessed by sunshine, 12:15 tee times and the occasional, but leisurely, interruption of having to cover first base during fielding drills or, even more pastorally, stand like sheep in a meadow of outfield grass while shagging batting practice balls. New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, exempt as a starter from so many of those 8 a.m. spring bus rides across Florida, has been known to tell teammates with an amused shrug, "Hey, you had your chance. You should have been a pitcher." Last March 20 in Fort Myers, Fla., Jonathan Papelbon, who had been the Boston Red Sox closer in 2006 but was newly reassigned to the species of starting pitcher, stood sheeplike in the outfield, grazing for batting practice balls when his idyll was shattered by a thought he could no longer endure. Every day for the previous week the first thing on Papelbon's mind when he woke up was, Is this the day I'm going to the manager and tell him? "You know what?" he said to himself. "The hell with it."

Papelbon, 26, walked off the field and headed straight for the office of manager Terry Francona. "Tito," Papelbon said, addressing Francona by his nickname. "I've got to talk to you real quick."

"What is it, Pap?"

"Man, I'm not sleeping good. I know deep down in my heart this is not what I want to do. If you want to give me the ball in the ninth, I'd love to take it and go back in that role."

Francona reacted to the news with the restraint you might expect from a manager who was being asked to find a replacement for Papelbon from a cast of suspects who included Joel PiƱiero, Brendan Donnelly, Devern Hansack, Mike Timlin and Craig Hansen. Which is to say, with all the restraint of a pardoned prisoner.

Replied Francona, "Well, hell yeah!"

See, Papelbon is more wolf than sheep. "On the mound with the ball in his hand and the game on the line," says Boston bullpen coach Gary Tuck, "he is pure rage."

Blue eyes ablaze, ferocity broadcast from his face, Papelbon looks like a man who's armed and has malicious intent, which, given an extraordinary and unique fastball that he swears is a gift from God, is at least partly true. He lives for confrontation, going back to the scuffles that interrupted driveway basketball, trampoline dodgeball or even family dinner (vying to see who'd finish first) when he was growing up in Jacksonville with his twin brothers, Jeremy and Josh, three years his junior and now both minor league pitchers. Why, just two years ago, while getting together over Christmas, the Papelbon boys couldn't complete a game of Yahtzee without a scuffle breaking out. A family game of Balderdash degenerated into another fight.

The high-wire act of closing fed Jonathan's jones for a good fight in the way that starting, with all that waiting and the intellectual demands of outthinking the same hitters three or four times a night, never could. "This [role] suits him," says Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. "He's not exactly a charter member of Mensa, so he can just go right after people with two pitches. And he has a natural ability to just immediately forget the few times things don't go his way. Putting him back as a closer was a no-brainer."

"You play this game because every day you have the chance to kick somebody's ass and win," Papelbon says. "That's what gets my motor going. And when you put me in that situation 30 to 45 times a year? That seals the deal for me."

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