boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

A firm grasp at third

Lowell has handle on baseball and life

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He sees the world through his Cuban/Puerto Rican heritage. Through the testicular cancer he beat when he was just short of his 25th birthday and just four months into his marriage. Through the eyes of his mother and father, who by all accounts raised him to be a gentleman and to put all aspects of life in their proper compartments. Through the eyes of an undersized (until his early 20s) kid who has maximized his talent in a superb major league career.

He sees his future through the eyes of his two children and wants to give them part of his past -- a nurturing, loving family life that he swears has meant everything to him.

What he doesn't quite see yet is how he'll reconcile the end of his career -- his desire to stay in baseball -- with being the father he wants to be. His Red Sox contract ends after this season, but Mike Lowell expects to continue playing somewhere next year.

"I do have an idea in my head of how long it's going to be," said the 33-year-old third baseman. "I think as you get older, I'm a more intelligent hitter, but I don't feel the ease of the seasons anymore. It's more of a grind as you get older.

"If I'm playing every day and putting up numbers, I want to keep playing. If there comes a time when I'm on a playoff team and they have a young guy and want me to groom him, I don't think I could do it mentally.

"I'd love to stay in the game, but I really want to give my son and my daughter what my dad gave me. I felt both my parents were on my side no matter what I did. My kids don't know any better. I go away.

"Even when I'm in Boston, I'm home for seven and gone for seven and they think that's part of work. I really want to coach my son's Little League. I'd like to take 10 years off from the game and spend time with my kids."

Lowell's father, Carl, a dentist, grew up in Cuba and was a pitcher for the Puerto Rican national team after he was exiled from Cuba. He would take every Wednesday off from work so he could bring Mike and his brother to the ballpark for batting practice. Carl also coached his sons in Little League, but it was those Wednesdays of bonding Mike never will forget.

"What I appreciated most about my dad was, he didn't push baseball on me," said Lowell. "He always said, 'I don't care if you don't play baseball, but you've got to do something.'

"He was big on the mental side of the game. I remember him telling me, 'If you want to drive in the run, you've got be the guy who wants it. Everyone would love to be the hero and drive in the run, but not everybody can be in that situation.' "

On those Wednesdays, Carl would bring two buckets of balls, and the rule was you had to swing at every ball in batting practice.

"You had two buckets, so you took 100 swings," said Lowell. "We caught some ground balls and we'd go to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee. That was our reward. Those were the greatest memories I have."

Maybe that's why Lowell had such a sure glove growing up.

He was a second baseman and shortstop at Coral Gables High School in Florida and by his own admission, "I was little. I don't think I got to 6 feet until my senior year in high school and later in college. I played second base in college and I never made too many errors."

A labor of glove
When the Yankees drafted him in the 20th round in 1995 out of Florida International University -- where his No. 15 was retired after he posted a .353 career average -- a move to third base threw him for a loop.

"It was a big adjustment for me," said Lowell. "Third is so much more a reactionary position. The first step is key, so I needed to learn it. I was in the minors for two full seasons before I started feeling comfortable.

"It was actually a big motivation because I remember in '98, my first big league camp, the Yankees had just signed Scott Brosius. He was coming off a subpar offensive year but the Yankees were just going to stick him ninth and he'll play great defense for us. That's all we need."

That's because the word on Lowell -- hard to believe now -- was "good hitter, subpar defensively." He made 56 errors in his first two seasons in the Yankees system, 21 at Triple A Columbus. He said some were the result of bad field conditions and first basemen who couldn't scoop one-hop throws.

"I don't think you can take it anything but personally, so it's been gratifying that I've been able to be a consistent third baseman," he said. "I think winning a Gold Glove was an exclamation point."

He learned not to leave himself in position for the in-between hop that often eats up third basemen. He eliminated what he called a guessing game of where the ball might end up. He smoothed out to the point where he was silk. He got terrific coming in on the ball. He got terrific to his left and right.

He still watches other third basemen closely; he admires Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre.

When he was with the Marlins, said Lowell, "We had spring training with the Cardinals and I got to see Rolen a lot more. He's almost a shortstop playing third, and a rocket for an arm.

"Tools-wise, Adrian Beltre is the best one. He's very, very quick. He comes in on the ball incredibly.

"I wish I could have that ability to flick the ball across the diamond and it goes like a bullet. In the minors, he was like a man playing against boys."

The cancer scare
Between Single A and Double A, Lowell's body finally blossomed. With that came power. Lowell went from eight homers in A ball to 15. He remembers it being a milestone when he finally got to 185 pounds.

When he got to Columbus in 1998, he hit 26 homers and knocked in 99 runs while hitting .304. He had grown to 6 feet 3 inches and more than 200 pounds.

He is indebted to Yankees hitting instructor Gary Denbo for making him a hitter.

"He didn't change my swing but he changed my thought process," said Lowell.

But with Brosius at third and a Yankees mini-dynasty rolling -- they would win four World Series between 1996 and 2000 -- Lowell was traded to the Marlins in February 1999. He was going home, where his family could watch him play every day, which was a dream.

Three weeks after the deal, he was diagnosed with cancer.

"It totally changed me," said Lowell. "When you're told you have cancer, your whole world stops. First thing I said to the doctor is, 'When am I going to die?'

"It makes you realize what's really important. Sometimes you need those jolts of realism thrown at you. Maybe not that strong. I was 24 and married four months, that's something I don't wish upon anybody.

"It was tough for me physically and emotionally. But I had all my family there. A huge support group."

After beating it, Lowell came back stronger than ever. Playing for the Marlins helped a lot.

"I think it was super convenient," said Lowell. "That's what it was. It actually worked out great for me because I've never felt pressure playing in front of my family. I actually prefer it because I don't have to make phone calls to say, 'I did well,' or 'I did bad,' or whatever the case may be.

"Living at home for seven years, and on top of that, we had the same group of guys."

The Marlins had won a World Series before Lowell arrived, in 1997, and there would be down years before they returned to glory with another title in 2003.

"We kept getting our butts whupped in 1999 and 2000 and 2001, and we kind of turned the corner," said Lowell. "And then '03 was really a unique professional year for us. It was especially satisfying, particularly the infield, because we got killed in those other years. And I think our infield became one of our strengths.

"We added Pudge [Rodriguez] and Juan Pierre. That was one of the most underrated aspects of that team: We had tremendous defense."

He remembers the momentum building after the All-Star break. The excitement. Winning close games. The Marlins fought to make the playoffs as the wild card because the Braves couldn't be caught in the NL East.

"I've often thought the best team doesn't always win in the playoffs, the hottest one does," said Lowell. "We were the hottest team. We clinched the wild card, I think, two days before the season ended. It was like a playoff run for us the last month. So I think we were in that playoff-type mode.

"The series we played were unbelievable. A collision at home plate to end the Giants series. The craziness with the Cubs series, and then going to Yankee Stadium. I felt like I had to go into emotional detox when it was over, but it was great."

Sense of self
Lowell's heritage is important to him, and he's often amazed at the number of people who don't know he's Latin.

One day in camp this month, Lowell began speaking Spanish to Julio Lugo behind Brendan Donnelly. The former Angels reliever, who had no idea about Lowell's background, said, 'Where'd you learn to speak like that?' "

Lowell grew up in a household where English and Spanish were spoken equally. But at family gatherings around the holidays, it was almost all Spanish.

"I think people tend to typecast the Latin player as one who speaks broken English," said Lowell. "I think I speak English pretty well and I speak Spanish very well. When I was in Miami, the fans knew I was Latin. But maybe not as much up here because my last name is German. It doesn't bother me because I know what I am."

And how lucky he is.

He talks about the perks and the money and all the things he never thought he'd have. Which is why he's never sweated trade rumors. When there were reports in December that Lowell may be traded to the Rockies in a package involving Todd Helton, Lowell had some fun with it. Manager Terry Francona, thinking he needed to do some damage control after the deal fell through, called Lowell.

"I saw it was his number," Lowell said. "I answered, 'Now batting sixth for the Colorado Rockies . . .'

"I don't think we can take ourselves too seriously. I'm playing baseball in the big leagues. I'm going to worry about getting traded to another big league team?

"I respect all 30 big league teams but I'm glad things didn't pan out. Hopefully they don't. We've got a great team. I'm comfortable here. I'm very happy here. I want to play here for the rest of my career."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES