FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Hold the wisecracks. Yes, Pedro Martinez is expected to be the lone absentee when today's deadline passes for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report for spring training. And, yes, it will mark the sixth time in seven years he has not arrived with his teammates on the reporting date.
But this time no one in the organization has suggested even privately that the reason for Martinez's absence is anything but rock solid. Unlike past Februarys, when he cited his father's birthday, personal matters, or a desire to complete his workouts in the Dominican Republic for his tardiness, Martinez received permission from the team to arrive late because of a serious medical issue involving a close family member.
General manager Theo Epstein, who declined to publicly disclose details of the medical issue in deference to Martinez's privacy, said the ace was expected to arrive here by early next week. Martinez was in Boston yesterday.
"He has a very legitimate serious family issue that's going to be fine but does require his attention," Epstein said. "He's going to do everything he can to get down here, but there's a chance we might not see him until Monday night. We'll know more about that in the next couple of days."
Martinez reported late to camp each of his first five years with the Sox before he broke the streak last year. Epstein made clear he was well aware of Martinez's previous tardiness and went out of his way to stress that today's absence was warranted. The general manager described the medical issue as a very recent development.
Epstein also said the issue was not related to a fatal crash in the Dominican Republic involving a vehicle owned by Martinez. The sport utility vehicle was being driven by a friend of Martinez, who was not a passenger, when a motorcyclist struck the vehicle and died.
By all accounts, Martinez is expected to arrive in camp in top condition. After logging the lowest earned run average (2.58) and highest winning percentage in baseball over the last 10 years, he will enter the season as the game's highest-paid pitcher at $17.5 million. He could be eligible for free agency after the season and has said he wants to wrap up talks on a multiyear extension before Opening Day.
The Sox expect the 30 pitchers and catchers other than Martinez to participate in their first official workout tomorrow.
He's kidding around
Even for a baseball lifer, Terry Francona said he felt like a kid again when he arrived for his first spring training as the Sox manager. Not that he is unaware of the enormous challenge and pressure that await him.
Francona also indicated he was mindful that his predecessor, Grady Little, was almost universally admired by his players. Francona said he was not sure if he will address Little's relationship with the players when he addresses them after the full squad arrives next week.
"I'm not sure if I have to or not," Francona said. "They don't have to hide their feelings. They had a great year last year, and last year was `they.' Now, it's `us,' but I respect what they did. They don't have to hide the fact that they had a good year or they liked their manager. That would be wrong."
Francona has plenty on his plate, most importantly forging relationships with the players. Little had the advantage of knowing many of the players from his previous tenure as a bench coach under Jimy Williams. But Francona said he has welcomed his initial response from the team.
"I'm actually pleasantly surprised," he said. "Everybody I've run into, [including] Tim Wakefield, who has been playing forever, wants to take it a step further. They seem very hungry to do that. Sometimes you get around veteran teams and they'll give you that, `Hey, I'm pro, I know how to get ready.' But I have not seen that one time yet. That's very refreshing."
The Sox are expected to take a close look during spring training at whether to alter their regular lineup. The possibilities could range from flip-flopping Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez in the third and fourth slots to experimenting with replacements for Johnny Damon as the leadoff hitter. Damon had one of the lowest on-base percentages (.345) last year among Sox regulars. By contrast, Bill Mueller ranked among the team's leaders with a .398 on-base percentage. Francona gave no indication he was contemplating a change at the top of the order, though he said he was pleased with his offseason talks with Damon. "I think he understands the importance, leading off, of being on base," Francona said. "He completely understands that." . . . Epstein said he has not formulated an opinion on a salary cap for baseball, which principal owner John W. Henry said may be necessary since the Yankees' payroll has reached about $185 million . . . Former Sox pitcher Brian Rose, who worked out recently for team officials, signed a minor league deal with the Reds . . . The Sox' equipment truck arrived at City of Palms Park at 6 a.m. after the long haul from Yawkey Way. The van then rolled down Edison Avenue to the minor league training facility, where the team will work out until the exhibition season opens.
Gordon Edes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.