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Not your average AL batting champ

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- So, just how transforming a life event is it to win the American League batting title?

Invitations to the hottest parties, reservations at the choicest tables in town, endorsement deals, and a whole host of new best friends?

"Not at all," Bill Mueller said yesterday. "I stayed home. You know, I don't do much. I like being at home and just being a dad. This was our first offseason with our daughter, having a lot more interaction with her being a year old, and moving into the new home and having a second daughter. That stuff is more gratifying to me than getting a table at a restaurant or anything like that, or being known.

"I prefer being under the radar and just go about my business, because that's what I play for, for the love of competing and playing and being a part of a group of guys than to be recognized or signing an autograph or something like that."

Mueller hit .326 last season, 40 percentage points above his career average of .286 entering the year. His batting title was the 25th in Red Sox history, the first won by a switch hitter, and the 11th won by a Red Sox player in the last 25 seasons, more than any other team. Four of the last five titles have been won by a Sox player: Nomar Garciaparra won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, and Manny Ramirez won in 2002 (and finished a percentage point behind Mueller last season).

But where other batting champions have basked in strobe lights, Mueller opts for the 50-watt bulb. If you notice, fine. If you don't, that's OK, too.

He had a miserable spring training, when the Sox were still trying to figure out what to do with Mueller when Shea Hillenbrand was still around to play third base, but he began to hit in April (.315) and never stopped. He hit .300 or better every month except June (.253), maxing out in May (.418) but still going strong in September (.333).

He led the club in doubles with 45, hit a career-high 19 home runs, and made history on July 29 in Texas, when he became the first player in big league history to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in the same game.

"That was ridiculous," he said.

What was sublime was what he brought to this ball club, which the numbers can only begin to measure. New manager Terry Francona wasn't here last season, but he saw enough of Mueller when he was managing in Philadelphia and Mueller was playing for the Giants to know what he meant to the Sox last season.

"When he was with the Giants and I was with the Phillies, I hated him," Francona said. "His uniform was always dirty, and if he went 1 for 4, his hit was the one that beat you. He's the kind of guy you love having. He plays the game right. He's a pro. We have a lot of those guys."

When general manager Theo Epstein elected to offer Mueller a two-year deal last winter, which was one year more than anybody else was willing to give him, including the Cubs -- a team that needed a third baseman and hoped to bring him back after a two-year stint in Chicago -- he was taking a chance on a guy still showing the effects of major knee surgery just two years earlier, which had reduced him to a part-time player.

With the Sox, you couldn't get Mueller out of the lineup. After taking over as the regular third baseman when Hillenbrand was traded in late May, Mueller wound up appearing in 146 games, sitting only when he required some emergency dental work.

The uncertainty that admittedly caused him to press in an attempt to make a good first impression last spring has been replaced by the knowledge that Francona will be writing his name on his lineup card most every day. The Sox brought in a backup, Mark Bellhorn, who can play both second and third, but for Mueller, that's a mixed blessing. He pointed to Garciaparra and his 700-plus plate appearances as a standard to which he aspires.

Mueller struggled in the postseason, with just two hits in 19 at-bats (.105) against the A's in the Division Series, and .222 (6 for 27) against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. He did not drive in a run in 12 postseason games and scored just one. But leave it to Mueller to find a glass-half-full take on the experience.

"It's not about me personally and my statistics," he said. "It's about how we're all contributing as a group. It's about wins and losses.

"I take a positive out of Game 7," he said of the elimination loss. "It was the first time in my career that I ever had the thought I was going to the World Series, to have that thought going through my mind. That's a great feeling, and I want to get to that feeling and thought process again. I feel like I have a great shot at getting to the World Series. That's it."

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