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Rocket Redux

Twenty years after Roger Clemens first brought his blazing fastball up from Pawtucket to Boston, the Red Sox are counting on another of their home-grown studs from the South, Jonathan Papelbon, to heat up Fenway Park.

Jonathan Papelbon
(Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

PHENOMS HOLD A UNIQUE PLACE in the history and culture of baseball. The image of the cornfed fireballer from parts unknown -- from Walter Johnson to Bob Feller and beyond -- is central in its own way to both Damn Yankees and The Natural. Even though the dark retelling of the myth in the latter is inexcusably brightened up by the movie made from Bernard Malamud's novel, the outline of the story held steady through the years. But it is a less plausible story now than it was before, a tale out of the dim times before ESPN, fantasy leagues, and Baseball America, a saga from a time when the sport still had a hazy frontier made up of rumor and exaggeration.

In fact, Roger Clemens may have been the last real phenom. Twenty years ago, he arrived in Boston with some mystery still clinging to him. The only people who truly knew him were those who'd closely followed the University of Texas baseball team and the minor leagues, which ruled out most of that part of the human race that does not live in Peter Gammons's house. Clemens arrived in Boston still pretty much a surprise and completely unformed as a public figure.

It did not end well here, of course. He found himself beset by the newspapers. The Herald carried a near-daily jibe at him under the rubric "The World According to Roger," and the late Will McDonough savaged him in the Globe as the "Texas Con Man," which was certainly an odd appellation to be flung about by an apologist for the Bulger clan. Clemens also found himself beset by his own strange public pronouncements. Then the Red Sox determined that he was over the hill -- in the "twilight of his career," according to Dan Duquette, the general manager at the time -- and Clemens was gone.

That all seems to be beside the point, now that Clemens has gone on to such a towering career. He truly has never left. It was Clemens who came up through the Boston system, who was central to the first team built to break away from what had always been the franchise's signature characteristics. In some ways, it was Clemens who made Pedro Martinez possible. That there now is still an outspoken public desire to have Clemens return, if only for 15 starts this season, is an indication of the mark he left on the franchise. Even if Boston fans won't admit it, there's a part of them that's always been looking for the next Rocket.

It may be Jonathan Papelbon. Or it may not. The blond right-hander looks just as young as Clemens was when he first arrived in Boston in 1984 and just as fresh and eager, which Clemens certainly wasn't by the time he left in 1996. Papelbon won't be 26 until after the season's over, even if the season doesn't end until the last possible day it can. Last July, he was brought up from the minors in an attempt to stabilize a Boston pitching staff that was turning into the Petrified Forest. He made three strong starts that month and next, and then he moved to the bullpen, where throughout September he was the strongest reliever the Red Sox had. He finished the season at 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA and twice as many strikeouts as walks. It can be argued that the defending 2004 world champions would not even have made last season's playoffs were it not for Jonathan Papelbon.

"You've heard that saying about be careful of the quiet guy?" asks Todd Claus, who managed Papelbon in the minors. "When the quiet guy snaps, watch out. Jon's personality is sort of easygoing, but on the mound, he's all business."

His first big moment came in a game last September 10 in Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox were closing out a 9-2 win over New York, and manager Terry Francona brought in Papelbon instead of Keith Foulke, the team's nominal closer, who spent last season both injured and unhappy. Despite the score, Papelbon found himself with an immediate sense of the moment, of joining history.

"I wasn't expecting to pitch, but I wanted to pitch," he says. "It was different for me. You take all the present and all the past and everything, and it all came down to that one moment. I'm in the rivalry now." He gave up a single and a walk, but he got New York's star shortstop, Derek Jeter, to pop up to end a scoreless inning, and he can't even remember what pitch it was he threw to do it.

"It was a pivotal moment of my career," Papelbon says. "I know I'll always remember my first game at Yankee Stadium. It was pretty cool, you know? Like it was my initiation."

"We threw him right into the heat of battle," says Francona, "and he handled an immense amount of responsibility like a veteran. He came in, and it's the Yankees and it's the eighth inning, and he's competing. It wasn't too big a stage for him. He didn't back down. The game wasn't too fast for him. At that age, you can see the game quicken up on young kids. It didn't happen with him."

In a sense, Roger Clemens had it easier. There was no mystery to Jonathan Papelbon when he got to the major leagues last year. His minor league totals beat him to the major leagues and were waiting for him at the ballpark in 30,000 pairs of anxious eyes. "By the time I got to Boston," he says, "the people already knew about me. They're pulling up my stats, and I'm, like, 'Good Lord.'"

Certainly, he's off to a fine start, and he's more familiar than most young players with Clemens's oeuvre. "When I started pitching at Mississippi State, I thought to myself, 'Who do I want to pitch like?' " he says. "It was obviously Roger." Papelbon has modeled his off-season training regimen on the one that Clemens follows. And he's tried to model himself not so much on Clemens's pitching mechanics as on the manner in which he does his job.

"I picked up his little actions," Papelbon says. "What he does when he gets a ground ball. What he does when he gives up a home run. . . . Look, fear is a part of life, and everybody has fear. The thing is to control that fear and use it as positive energy, and that's what he does well. You can see that really well on film."

Papelbon now works under the tutelage of Al Nipper, Clemens's best friend when they were teammates. "Nip says that I've got a lot of characteristics like [Clemens]," he says. "But I have a lot to do to get where he is. I don't want to be Roger Clemens. I'm Jon Papelbon. I want to make my own mark. I want to go after his records."

PITCHERS, CATCHERS, AND OPTIMISM all report the same day, a week early, to spring training. Of course, much of the sunny zeitgeist is simply a function of the weather. Loosed from the heart of the New England winter, a person can find any place in Florida looking very much like Cancun. For a long time, the Boston Red Sox trained in Winter Haven, deep in that part of central Florida best described as Baja Mississippi. Now they gather in Fort Myers on the southwest coast of Florida, which has beaches and a better class of franchise restaurants. With a blue sky that seems to start in Tierra del Fuego, and the closest cloud rumored to be somewhere over Ecuador, Fort Myers takes on an undeniable glow. Even the vultures wheeling gently above the stadium seem to shine.

All of this bright good feeling seems to suffuse the players, especially the young and promising ones. It is on days like this when all the metaphors that draw poets to baseball like gamblers to the racetrack are born. (The late A. Bartlett Giamatti connected baseball to springtime as surely as the ancient Greeks did Persephone and used that poetic license to drive himself right into the commissioner's office.) So it's difficult at first glance not to make someone like Jonathan Papelbon out to be more than what he is -- a gifted right-handed pitcher with a fine, if somewhat brief, record in the major leagues on whom the Red Sox are depending vitally this season. On a day like this, when Papelbon's greeting everyone within a 100-yard radius with a huge smile and more "Hey, man, what's up?"s than you'd hear at the Blue Note on a Saturday night, he seems to embody all the promise and sunshine of the first day of spring.

No longer a rookie, Papelbon says this season is different. "I kind of know what to expect from playing with my teammates," Papelbon says. "I feel like I can come in here and work on what I know what I need to work on, and I can get into the camaraderie of the team, into the flow of the season. Last year, as much hazing as I got, having to carry that pink backpack and all that other bull, I was digging it up, man. It was like, 'Yeah, I get to carry the pink backpack today!' Every day, it was something, and I kind of liked it."

PAPELBON'S PERFORMANCE HAS pushed him to the front of a group of young Boston pitchers who may well turn out to be one of the most enduring legacies of the current ownership and of the on-again-off-again stewardship of Theo Epstein over the team's personnel. Papelbon, Jon Lester, Craig Hansen, and Manny Delcarmen all have shown sufficient talent that the Red Sox resisted the temptation to trade any of them for a quick fix at the end of last season. And even during the surreal off-season just passed, when the youthful genius GM left and then returned, the only megadeal the Sox made brought them an accomplished young pitcher, Josh Beckett, in return not for any of their own promising arms but for heralded minor-league infielder Hanley Ramirez.

There is a generational sense among these home-grown pitchers, much as there was 20 years ago, when Bruce Hurst, Dennis Boyd, Al Nipper, and, especially, Roger Clemens came up through Boston's system as the team's focus moved toward pitching and away from its historic reliance on Paleolithic right-handed hitters. In 1986, Clemens moved to the head of that class. Papelbon appreciates the comparison while at the same time resisting the burden of it, even as rumors swirled that Clemens might be coming back to Boston for the latest in his continuing series of auld lang syne farewells on his meandering way to Cooperstown.

"I was joking with Nip," Papelbon laughs. "I'm like, 'Hey, Nip, you ain't got no pull here?'"

History will happen as it will. For now, there's just the sunny day, the huge, cloudless sky with the shiny buzzards, and the very small beginnings of the season at City of Palms Park on Edison Avenue. And that's enough for the moment. "Man," says Jonathan Papelbon, with another smile for this first bright morning, "every day I drive to the ballpark here, I catch myself turning the radio up real loud, driving down Edison. I do that up in Boston, too. By the time I get to the park, the radio's just blasting.

"I mean, I watch Wake and Schill, and they're still in here working, and they're over 40!" He can be forgiven for the astonishment he throws into that last bit.

"This game keeps you young."

THE FIRST THING you have to understand is that the name isn't French.

People see that he was born in Baton Rouge, and they pronounce "Papelbon" as though they have a mouthful of etouffee. Actually, it's German - originally Papelbaum - and the family comes from Milwaukee, which is about as German as you can get this side of Helmut Kohl. "When Jonathan first came up, all the papers would write that he was Cajun," says his father, John Papelbon. "I'd say, 'Jonathan, you need to let them know your real name.'"

John Papelbon's father, an Army staff sergeant, had moved the family from Wisconsin to Louisiana, and John went to Louisiana State University, where he fell in love with a girl on the LSU volleyball team. "He played for a volleyball team with his frat, and they always wanted to practice against us," Sheila Papelbon explains. They married. John got into the food business, and Sheila channeled her competitive instincts into corporate trust banking. Jonathan was born in 1980. Three years later, Sheila gave birth to twin sons, Joshua and Jeremy. At which point, the Papelbon household became somewhat unruly. The twins spent an awful lot of time in mischievous alliance against their big brother. They competed at everything, including who could finish dinner the fastest.

"It would always escalate until things got completely out of hand," recalls Jonathan. "We would go out there, and it was always them against me. If we played basketball, it was always two-against-one, and, growing up, I had that 'bring-it-on' type attitude."

Today, Jeremy and Joshua Papelbon play baseball at the University of North Florida. "I can remember always ganging up on Jona," says Jeremy, 22, using his nickname for his brother. "It was always Josh and I against him. I couldn't have asked for anything better. As a twin, you've already got a teammate."

At one point, desperate to preserve the family crockery, John and Sheila bought the boys a trampoline to move the rambunctiousness outdoors. It was a better idea in theory than in practice, since it did little but give the boys a larger field of battle, and air combat besides.

In 1990, Sheila accepted a job in Jacksonville, and the Papelbons moved to Florida. It was a difficult time for all of them, but especially for Jonathan, who was 10. After all, the twins had each other.

"I was at that age where I'd just started making friends," Papelbon explains. "I'd just started playing Little League and football and soccer, and I started getting into my little groups of friends, and all of a sudden, we're moving. I didn't want to move at all."

"One day," Sheila recalls, "and this was so sad, Jonathan came home from school and said, 'You know what? I wish I was a twin, because then I would always have a best friend.'"

John and Sheila watched with fascination as parts of themselves evolved in their three sons. Jeremy was more quiet and reserved, like his father, while Josh had Sheila's gregarious enthusiasm. Jonathan was a blend, but he also had something indefinable that drew other children to him. "Everybody liked him," says his father. "It wasn't something you could teach. You have to be born with that."

However hard Jonathan Papelbon's initial adjustment, Jacksonville opened up opportunities. "I thought, 'Hey, this could be a new beginning,'" he says. "The competition was a lot more intense. Baseball was huge in Florida. It wasn't like it was in Louisiana. I started playing against better kids and better athletes. You go to this big city of Jacksonville, and you get all kinds of different people and different associations. It really opened me up to what was out there."

He wound up at Bishop Kenny High School, a smallish Catholic school notable for its athletic program. "The funny thing about Jonathan was that he was a hitter. He played first base," says Bob West, who coached all three Papelbons at Kenny before becoming the school's vice principal. "We would use him as a pitcher every so often, but he wanted to play every day." In fact, when Mississippi State University recruited Papelbon, it was as a first baseman and a power hitter, which he sees today as having given him a fresh arm when he began to pitch full time.

At Mississippi State, Jonathan's arm caught the attention of the Bulldog coaching staff. "He came here, and I saw him as real lanky," recalls head coach Ron Polk. "He got bigger. He got stronger and more confident, and he came up with a really live fastball and a breaking ball." As he began to redefine himself in his own mind as a pitcher, Papelbon saw another opportunity opening up, the way he had when the family moved to Jacksonville.

"I was fresh," he says. "And it was like I had a new life in baseball, and I felt, 'Man, let's take this road and see where it takes me.' My second or third year in college, I said, 'You know what? I'm going to run with it.'

"I've always lived my life that way. Whether it be in school or baseball, or whether it be with my wife [Ashley]. If I see that opportunity, I'm going to seize it. I mean it, man. I met her in school, at Starkville, and I said, 'That's the girl I want to marry.'"

It was while he was in college that Papelbon began studying Clemens. "At first," he says, "I even began bringing my hands back behind my head the way that he used to do it." By his senior year, Papelbon had drawn the attention of Boston scout Joe Mason. The Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round in 2003.

The Papelbon family celebrated together.

On April 2, 2004, Papelbon was pitching in a practice game at his first minor-league camp, when, out of the blue, they pulled him off the mound. A Red Sox executive named Ben Cherington took him aside in the dugout. "I'm thinking, 'What's going on here?'" Papelbon recalls. "I mean, this wasn't baseball."

JEREMY HAD BEEN taking Vioxx, then a popular new painkiller, after knee surgery. That morning, he had collapsed in the university library, and an ambulance had rushed him to the hospital. He was bleeding internally from an ulcer, which he says his doctor blamed on Vioxx. The prognosis was not good.

"We really thought we were going to lose him," his father, John, says. "When we finally got him there, the doctor said he wasn't out of the woods yet. It was hard for me to see him like that. I didn't know how much love there was."

Josh was desolate. In Fort Myers, Jonathan's anguish was deepened by distance. "I couldn't do anything, and that was the worst thing about it," he says. "You feel like you have to do something." It took the doctors five days to stop the bleeding. (That fall, Merck Pharmaceuticals withdrew Vioxx from the market after a study indicated that long-term use doubled the risk of heart attack or stroke.) Jeremy recovered, and today the brothers work out together in Jonathan's off-season, as competitive in the weight room as they ever were on the family trampoline. "I remember him always having a pretty solid work ethic," Jeremy says of his elder brother. "He would work like crazy during the holiday break. I've sort of taken that to heart."

"It really opened us up a little bit as a family," Jonathan muses. "You know, when we hung up the phone, we always said, 'I love you.' Whereas before, it was sort of taken for granted. Now, it's shown us you can't take anything for granted. All we have is each other."

THE BABY was the first indication that his life had changed.

Shortly after his first start in Boston, Papelbon and his parents went out to dinner to celebrate. "There was this man. and he had a newborn baby with a Red Sox shirt," Sheila recalls. "And he came up and said, 'You're Jon Papelbon. Will you sign my baby?' So Jonathan did, and the man left, and Jonathan said to me, 'Well, I never signed a baby before.'"

"I had made," her son points out, "one start in Boston."

Then, of course, there were the unusual phenomena outside the workplace. "I showed up one day at the field, and we were playing the Yankees, I believe, and this guy right where we park is in a Darth Vader Boston thing," Papelbon says. "I mean, all decked out with the 'B' on the helmet and everything. Head to toe. I'm, like, 'What's going on here?' I can't figure these people out.

"I mean, I can't even figure out these damn rotaries. Where in the hell am I going? And if you don't go the split second after the light changes, they're honking at you. I've always lived in the South. I'm not used to that."

(It should be noted that, back in 1981, star outfielder Fred Lynn specifically cited rotaries as part of the reason he left Boston as a free agent and joined the California Angels.)

Papelbon has not snuck up on people. He never had that chance. He's spent little time outside of the spotlight that so illuminates even the farthest corner of this franchise. He was going to be the new closer, the new setup man, the new starter. He was going to be the new Rocket. Jonathan Papelbon has been handed every one of these roles, and he's only one year removed from A-ball. People were arguing about him long before he got here.

"We view him as a starter," Francona says. "Whether it's April 1 or not, it's hard to say now."

Papelbon began spring training as a starter, working in a group with, among others, Curt Schilling, who sees a spot for Papelbon in the rotation this season as well. "I think he'd be a guy who would benefit from getting 200-plus innings," Schilling says. "I'm looking for him to be a starter."

"Yeah, I want to start," Papelbon says. "That's what I think I'm best at. But we've got guys who can do that.And if we've got guys who can do that, and we're winning ballgames, then I don't want to start."

For now, there is the wide blue sky and the brand new season and a new pitch to work on - a two-seam fastball that runs away from left-handed batters like a sinkerball. "You prepare so hard in the off-season, but you're not competing," Papelbon says. "If I'm not competing, I'm not happy."

He's already got people building an image for him -- people he doesn't even know, people he will never meet. The trick is to learn to wear the strange parts of his new life lightly, a skill that, for all his success, Roger Clemens never seemed to master. Jonathan Papelbon seems to be halfway there already, if he can hang on to the humor and gentle absurdity of it all. And when it gets to be too much or too weird, he can just turn the car radio louder and smile in the sunshine.

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