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Ready for his close-up

Maturity now in picture for the focused Beckett

One midwinter Saturday, Josh Beckett closed on a Boston condo and flew to Waco for the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The event would honor three men, among them his beloved high school baseball coach, Kenny Humphries, who gave 24 years to the teenagers of Spring, Texas. During his speech, Humphries asked Beckett to stand and thanked him for the joy it was to coach and watch him. There were, Humphries told the audience that night, many amazing memories.

There was the summer day, just after Beckett had completed ninth grade, when the kid unleashed one that registered at 89 miles per hour on the gun. Humphries was seated next to a man with the Scouting Bureau, and, as he recalled, ''We looked at each other like, 'Oh my gosh.' "

There was the day Spring was playing a rival town with about a dozen scouts in the park, all of whom witnessed what Humphries calls ''absolutely the most awesome event I ever saw in relation to Josh."

''We were in a tight game, over at our place, and our backstop is fairly close to the catcher," Humphries recounted. ''One of the other team's kids' dads was squatting behind home plate. Wherever the catcher set up, he was calling the location of the pitch. In between one inning I told the ump, 'He can't do that. You've got to move him.' He said, 'Sir, move.'

''He moved about 10 feet to the first base side. He squatted down, got his fingers in the fence, and continued to call location. The next pitch, Josh winds up, and he throws a ball 10 feet to the first base side of home plate. It hit the fence right at that guy's nose. When it hit, it knocked him backwards and rolled him on his back. All the scouts and people started clapping. The guy dusted himself off and sat down.

''Here's an 18-year-old kid thinking, 'I've had enough.' It hit right where the guy's nose was. One of the scouts said, 'That was the best pitch I've seen in my whole life.' "

To Humphries, having Beckett there that night was appropriate, and appreciated. The 1999 Spring graduate, now the Red Sox' 25-year-old ace apparent, sat down, assuming he was done standing for the night. He was, until the last inductee went up to talk, a Houston native who'd pitched for Houston's Spring Woods High, the University of Texas, and four big league teams over 22 seasons.

Roger Clemens, in talking to the audience that evening, spoke of -- and to -- Beckett. As Humphries remembers it, Clemens said, ''I'm passing the torch to a young man who's in the audience here tonight."

Clemens asked Beckett to stand.

''Hey," Humphries recalls Clemens saying, ''it's on your shoulders. You've got to represent the Houston area and Texas as the next pitcher Houston-area kids can look up to."

'A little attitude'
From the beginning, this was Josh Beckett's world.

''He was the kind of kid," his mom, Lynn Beckett, recalled, ''who at age 2 and 3, he'd have to have a belt and hat and boots. He'd give you trouble if he didn't have them. As his mother, you'd have to go back in the house and get the hat, the belt, or the boots, whatever was missing. He had a little attitude all his life."

The ostentatiousness, coupled with a powerful right arm (he went 10-1 with a 0.46 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings as a senior), made Beckett the No. 2 overall pick in 1999. No high school righthander had been selected that high since Bill Gullickson went second to the Expos in 1977. He signed for four years and $7 million of John Henry's money (the Sox owner owned the Marlins at the time) with a signing bonus of $3.6 million. That made Beckett only the third high school player since the advent of the draft in 1965 to be signed to a major league contract, joining Todd Van Poppel (Oakland, 1990) and Alex Rodriguez (Seattle, 1993).

''He was 19," Henry said, ''and our scouts felt he was the best pitcher at that age they had seen and, of course, compared him to Roger Clemens. When he signed, we talked about the opportunity he would have to become an important part of the community. Within two weeks, I received a letter from him. Inside was a check and a note. The check, made out to the Florida Marlins Foundation, was for $100,000. The note said:

Mr. Henry,

Use this to do the most good you can with it.

Josh.

That, apparently, was Beckett's softer side, usually concealed by his cocky exterior. On a conference call the day he was drafted, Beckett said he could pitch in the 2001 All-Star Game. In his first big league camp, as a 19-year-old in March 2000, he took an odd dig at future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

Beckett, unable to comprehend how Maddux makes his pitches move so much, said, ''He's scuffing the ball. Gotta be. You know how many pitches I've thrown in my life, and I've never been able to get one to move the way he does."

''Yeah," Mike Lowell pointed out recently, ''neither could like 7,000 other people who've tried."

Lowell, a teammate of Beckett's since Day 1, remembered that Beckett ''put his foot in his mouth a couple times. You'd read it in the paper and we'd tease him a little.

''I think he was, the right word would be, a little immature, in the sense that Texas pitchers, there was Nolan Ryan, Kerry Wood, and Roger Clemens. I think he was finding out what the right way was to act, to talk. He's matured. He gets it. He's not a dumb guy, by any means."

On March 6, 2000, Beckett threw the first pitch of his major league career -- a 94-m.p.h. fastball that Joe Randa swung through. Beckett, though, disputed the radar gun reading.

''Definitely 96," he told reporters that day, referring to the two fastballs he started Randa off with, ''and they could have been harder."

He pitched two perfect innings, throwing 16 of 26 pitches for strikes, and got the win.

In the seasons since, it hasn't always come so effortlessly. In April 2000, Beckett went on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. In 2002, he went on the DL three times with blisters on the middle finger on his pitching hand. In May 2003, he went on the DL with a strained right elbow. Early in 2004, he was on the DL with a blister. That June, he went on the DL with a strained back muscle, came off in early July, and returned to the DL a day later with a blister. In 2005, he went on the DL twice, for a blister in June and an oblique strain in July. At the end of last season, he was diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis.

That's 10 DL visits, six for blisters.

''It really got almost like raw hamburger at times," said Brad Arnsberg, the Blue Jays' pitching coach who worked with Beckett in Florida in that capacity. ''Something tore that middle finger to shreds.

''I'd go out to the mound and see him have blood on the side of his uniform and say he wanted the ball. He'd have seven, eight spots of blood on his uniform. I'd say, 'Josh, I love you to death, but you're done.' "

The issue: When the ball zips out of Beckett's hand, the last thing to touch it is the end of his middle finger. It's next to impossible to prevent a blister because, as Red Sox manager Terry Francona pointed out this spring, ''Until it appears, there's no reason to do anything. There's a hot spot, but until it appears . . ."

Remedies? There are many, though few that are scientific.

''You hear a lot of wives' tales," Francona said.

Those include sticking the hand in pickle juice, or uncooked rice, or urine (which Jorge Posada, Julian Tavarez, and Moises Alou have done), all means intended to toughen the skin.

Arnsberg, who hasn't worked with Beckett since early 2003, said the two best remedies he can recall were applying a super glue or affixing an extra-thin piece of gauze.

''I called it his do-rag on his finger," Arnsberg said. ''But I didn't like that, knowing his finger was wrapped. Almost a condom for the finger is what he needed."

Beckett, in recent seasons, according to published reports, turned to Stan's Rodeo, an ointment that toughens the skin. Beckett, however, wasn't willing to discuss any of this. Asked as far back as December, and as recently as last week, to sit down for an in-depth interview, he declined.

October 2003
Beckett, entering the 2003 postseason, was 23 and a .500 career pitcher (17-17). On the eve of that postseason, he proclaimed that the young Marlins just might be ''stupid enough" to win it all. They rolled over the Giants in four games, then the Cubs in seven. In the early morning that followed Game 7 of the NLCS, the phone rang at Humphries's house.

''I thought one of my kids was . . ." Humphries said, not wanting to complete that sentence. ''Who the hell calls at 4 in the morning?"

The coach's wife answered.

''She said, 'It's Josh.' "

Humphries remembers Beckett saying, '' 'What are you, sleeping?' I said, 'Yeah!' "

Beckett was calling to invite his coach and wife to New York for the World Series. First, though, Beckett had to pitch Game 3 in Miami. He allowed only two hits through seven innings, both to Derek Jeter, and just one run. In the eighth, Jeter got to Beckett a third time, doubling and knocking him out of the game. Jeter would score, and the Marlins lost, 6-1, falling behind, two games to one.

The Marlins won Game 4, on shortstop Alex Gonzalez's 12th-inning walkoff homer. They took Game 5, and Beckett, on three days' rest, got the ball in Game 6. Into the sixth inning, he'd allowed only three hits, the Marlins had built a 2-0 lead, and he was dealing. He got Bernie Williams looking, then Hideki Matsui swinging to end the inning.

''It was the second or third time guys had seen him," said Lowell, who played third base that evening. ''Matsui looked lost, and Matsui doesn't ever look lost. At that point I just noticed him really dominating."

''Pretty fitting," Lowell added, ''that he made the last out himself."

With two down in the ninth, a five-hit shutout intact, Posada chopped a ball toward first. Beckett scooped it up, applied the tag, and the World Series MVP award, at 23, was his. The ball, legend has it, is in Beckett's San Antonio home, still inside the glove, not to be touched by anyone.

Moving to Boston
Beckett, in camp, appeared healthy, despite the shoulder tendinitis that hindered him last September.

''No," Francona said, when asked if his early-season pitch count would be limited. ''He's probably gone deeper into games than anybody we have on our staff."

Beckett appeared happy and effective with all of his pitches. The riding, four-seam fastball that touches 97. The wicked two-seamer away. The devastating 12-to-6 curveball. And the changeup that bites away, almost like a slider.

''His best pitch is a located fastball," said Sox second baseman Mark Loretta, who has faced Beckett. ''He comes in and out with it. He gets a lot of swings and misses on the curveball. But I think what freezes guys is the two-seam fastball away. He starts it just off the plate and brings it back. You kind of give up on it.

''The changeup is good because he throws it with the same motion. A lot of guys, you can tell they ease up on the changeup. And a hitter always has a curveball in the back of his mind."

And Beckett throws those pitches with burning authority and attitude.

''The main thing is when they give him the ball he's going to compete," Humphries said. ''He's for his teammates. There'll be times, I'm sure, when he won't like the media and they won't like him."

It's that belief, in himself and his place in the game, that led Beckett to call out Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard this spring for ''pimping it" out of the box on a ball hit to deep center for an out. Beckett called Howard ''a jackass" and nearly came to blows with him.

''It's confidence," pitching coach Al Nipper said, when asked about Beckett's arrogance. ''If you want to call it arrogance, it's a good arrogance, it's a cockiness, but all great pitchers have that. They know they belong. They know they have the stuff. And you know what? They can back that up."

Beckett's mom believes that now, a month shy of his 26th birthday, her little boy with the boots, belt, and hat is ready for this city.

''Everything happens in the proper time frame," Lynn Beckett said. ''I just think he knows more about how to handle the world he lives in. He's definitely matured in his confidence, his people skills. He's definitely stepped up.

''He is excited. To be in that stadium, packed, that's a high-energy thing. That matches his personality to a T. He hasn't said that to me, but I know.

''He's always been able to create stuff around him that's magical. He's a performer."

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