FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alan Embree, the lone returning lefthander on the Red Sox staff, noted with a measure of mock despair yesterday that all six pitchers assigned to a fielding drill with him during the first formal workout of the 2004 season were lefthanders.
"Every one of these guys is trying to take my job," said Embree, who turned 34 last month. "How fair is that, putting me in with all these young guys?"
Welcome to spring training, old-timer.
While Embree found a reason to fret, however playfully, the scene provided the first exhilarating sign of spring for Sox fans as 30 pitchers and catchers fanned out on the emerald lawn of the team's training facility to open a season rich with promise. Full of hope and exuberance, the youngsters vying to join Embree in the bullpen joined a corps of veteran stars in turning Terry Francona's managerial debut with the Sox into a celebration witnessed by an unanticipated throng of more than 1,000.
The crowd amazed Francona, who had led four teams into spring training for the Phillies from 1997 to 2000 in virtual anonymity.
"I got nervous," Francona said. "I wasn't used to this. I came out and was kind of surprised. But nobody threw anything at me, so it was a good day."
Welcome to spring training, Sox-style, skipper.
Francona had blinked awake at 4:40 a.m., full of anticipation. Principal owner John W. Henry had flown across the state from Boca Raton to mark the ritual. The newest superstar, Curt Schilling, had defied the baseball gods by arriving in a replica Babe Ruth jersey from 1919, the Bambino's last season in Boston. And Theo Epstein marked the start of his second spring training as general manager by soaking it all in under a brilliant sun amid the rhythmic pop of baseballs striking leather.
"The first day is always fun," Epstein said as a young man climbed a chain-link fence behind him to thank him for assembling the '04 Sox. "No matter how long you've been in the game, you get goose bumps seeing the guys in their uniforms for the first time, especially the new guys the organization has worked hard to bring in during the winter."
Schilling threw off a mound to Jason Varitek while Tim Wakefield tossed to Doug Mirabelli and Derek Lowe pitched to the catcher of the future, Kelly Shoppach. Nearby, newly acquired closer Keith Foulke flung himself about a mound trying to stab rapid-fire grounders struck at him by Francona. As Foulke, a hockey fanatic, knocked down one ball with his leg, Mike Timlin shouted, "Kick save, and a beauty!"
Moments earlier, Scott Williamson had tossed his glove at a ball whistling past him, another reliever in goaltender training.
"Since Patrick Roy retired, maybe they'll call me up," Williamson said.
Welcome to spring training, baseball fans.
"I had some thoughts about not coming today because we're not really set up in our [offices]," Henry said. "But how can you stay away? One of the things about spring training is, you can't wait for it to start and then you can't wait for it to end."
Unlike previous years, there are few questions about Boston's pitching staff. The starting rotation is virtually in place, with Pedro Martinez, Schilling, Lowe, Wakefield, and Byung Hyun Kim. The bullpen is nearly complete, with Foulke, Embree, Timlin, Williamson, Bronson Arroyo, and Ramiro Mendoza (if he can recover quickly enough from an abdominal strain). That would leave only one or two openings, with the Sox hoping at least one of the lefty contenders can emerge to complement Embree. The candidates include former Devil Rays Mark Malaska and Nick Bierbrodt and several minor leaguers, including Rule V draftees from the Mets, Phil Seibel and Lenny Dinardo.
"We won't force it, but if it works, having another lefty on the staff would obviously be helpful not only for bringing in a guy for a situation but also because of the durability of your one lefty," Francona said. "Alan and I have already talked about it. "
No one was more excited about the first formal workout than Francona, who donned the Sox colors for the first time since he wowed Epstein in his initial interview in November to replace Grady Little.
"I'm real happy for him," Epstein said. "He worked so hard this offseason since he got the job to prepare for this moment, and I couldn't feel better about having him leading this camp and this team."
The Sox, many of whom hardly know Francona, seemed to respond positively to him throughout the session. And he appreciated the strong start, which effectively ended the team's 129-day hangover from the crushing end of the 2003 season.
"I wanted today to go smoothly and it did," he said. "We got accomplished what I wanted to."
Even his pre-practice jitters were a pleasant memory.
"It's fun to have a little bit of nervousness or excitement," Francona said. "You just don't get that when you have your Dockers on in the middle of winter."