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Kapler is pining for a return

Second thoughts about going to Japan?

''I have not had second thoughts," Gabe Kapler said by e-mail. ''I skipped right past second and have had third, fourth, fifth, and so on."

A month after the Red Sox won the World Series, Kapler became the first player to leave, signing with the Yomiuri Giants, the New York Yankees of Japanese baseball. Kapler, a valuable utilityman for the Sox, had filled in admirably while Trot Nixon was injured and wound up appearing in 136 games, batting .272 in 290 at-bats, and was extremely popular among his teammates for his gung-ho play. But he elected to leave for more money (a $2 million deal plus a signing bonus, $700,000, that nearly matched the $750,000 salary he received last season), and the chance to prove he could be an everyday player.

When he hit a three-run home run in his first at-bat in Yomiuri's first exhibition game, Kapler's plan appeared to be progressing nicely. Certainly it didn't foreshadow that in mid-May, he would be buried on the bench, batting .156 and an easy target for fans frustrated that the Giants are in last place in Japan's Central League.

But in a phone conversation from his temporary home in Tokyo Friday night, Kapler acknowledged that he sensed early on that he'd made a mistake.

''Not a moment in a day goes by where I don't think about leaving what was a good situation for Gabe Kapler and ending up in what has become a bad situation for Gabe Kapler," he said. ''From the day baseball activity began in Japan, I knew the Kapler Japanese baseball situation was not for me."

Kapler said he'd been warned that many major leaguers who come to Japan experience a ''hangover effect," as they miss the adrenaline surge of playing in the big leagues: the big series against the Yankees, the packed houses in Fenway Park and elsewhere, the camaraderie with teammates united in common cause. Kapler got off to a terrible start, was benched before he could fight his way out of it, and acknowledges that the hangover effect has indeed found him.

Kapler and his wife, Lisa, have embraced the idea of experiencing a new culture, and from that standpoint, there are no regrets.

''It's been really, really interesting," he said. ''As my wife says, 'No matter what happens, it was worth the experience.' "

But from a baseball standpoint, Kapler is miserable.

''My heart doesn't beat when I'm in the on-deck circle," he said. ''When a pitch is coming at you at 90 miles an hour, it's adrenaline and emotion that put you in a place to have success. When you walk to the plate and don't feel those things, it's difficult to perform."

At the moment, it would appear that Kapler has little recourse but to play out his contract, though it is not inconceivable that the Giants could release him.

''It hasn't all been bad," he said. ''I've learned a lot about hitting from playing over here, things that I have no doubt will help me when I come back to the US. I'm a better hitter than when I left. I can see certain pitches better. I've developed different timing mechanisms at the plate.

''By no means do I underestimate the talent here. Our No. 1 starter could be a No. 1 starter for most teams in the major leagues. Our catcher would be an All-Star in the US. There are players all over the place that are top-notch players."

Still, for him, it is not the same as it was playing here.

''Jason Varitek left me a message in which he played a song we'd sung a lot on the plane, and it literally had me in tears," Kapler said. ''I spend time learning about what is happening [with the Sox]. I knew Kevin [Millar] was struggling, [I wanted] to give him a hug to help him through the situation. Varitek, Johnny [Damon], I wanted to tell them how happy I am for them, the way they're playing. [Doug] Mirabelli, Trot [Nixon], [Curt] Schilling, all those guys, I miss them a lot."

Kapler has heard about Nixon's knee injury, and his declaration that he will need surgery after the season. Could Kapler possibly make his way back to Boston?

He's not thinking in those terms, he said.

''I don't doubt for one second that Trot will be on the field for the entire season," he said. ''What Trot plays through would be other players' nightmares. He's one of the toughest players I've ever met in my life."

But of this, you can be sure: ''I'm coming back [to the big leagues] next season," Kapler said.

Getting a little shaky at closing time

What seemed like one of baseball's most pleasant surprises -- former Sox pitcher Brandon Lyon, one of the players traded for Curt Schilling, was leading the majors in saves with 13 for Arizona while Schilling languished on the disabled list -- took a dark turn last week. Lyon landed on the disabled list as well with what was diagnosed as a strained flexor mass in his right forearm. Lyon missed the 2004 season after undergoing surgery to move the ulnar nerve in his right elbow; his latest problems came after he pitched in three straight games. He insisted the injuries are not related, but it's ominous.

''This is definitely all in the muscle," he insisted. ''It's not the nerve."

There are seven other closers on the DL: Jeremy Affeldt, Royals, groin strain; Octavio Dotel A's, strained elbow; Chad Fox, Cubs, elbow; Chin-Hui Taso, Rockies, torn labrum; Guillermo Mota, Marlins, elbow inflammation; Armando Benitez, Giants, torn hamstring; and Troy Percival, Tigers, partial tear, flexor. Two others, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers and Joe Borowski of the Cubs, recently came off the DL, while another, Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels, underwent an MRI and has shut it down for a few days with what is being called a strained forearm muscle.

This is one reason that closers are at a premium; the other is that the number of closers once thought to be automatic is dwindling. Guys like Gagne, Percival, Mariano Rivera, and Trevor Hoffman, all once considered lights out, are either hurt or getting old.

Kinks in schedule weren't worked out

The Red Sox are not wild about a schedule that has saddled them with two single-series homestands already this season, including this weekend's three-game set against the Braves, which is sandwiched between a West Coast trip and a six-game swing through Toronto and New York.

Last year, MLB hired a new firm, Sports Scheduling Group of Butler, Pa., to do the 2005 schedule; for the previous 24 years, the husband-and-wife team from Martha's Vineyard, Henry and Holly Stephenson, had done it.

Sports Scheduling Group is also a small operation, with much of the work done by two professors: Michael Trick, from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie-Mellon, and George Nemhauser, professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech. A third key member is Doug Bureman, a former vice president of business operations for the Pirates.

Their challenge was to come up with a 162-game schedule for 30 teams, a total of 2,430 games. The Stephensons, meanwhile, are working on a draft for the 2006 season in hopes of being rehired

''Everybody always has gripes about the schedule," said Katy Feeney, baseball's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations. ''There's always bits and pieces of the schedule that clubs don't like. Single-series homestands are something we try to minimize, but we can't eliminate them. "

As for interleague play, next season MLB will revert to corresponding divisions for the first time since 2001, which means the Sox could face Pedro Martinez.

Etc.

Who's next in Royal succession?
The Royals have made it a priority to hire a manager with big-league experience, which would eliminate candidates such as Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills, Angels bench coach Joe Maddon, and Rangers first base coach DeMarlo Hale. Madden and Hale interviewed for the Sox job before Terry Francona was hired. Former Mets manager Art Howe and current Mets first base coach Jerry Manuel figure to be high on general manager Allard Baird's list. The last four managers hired by the Royals, as noted in this space last week, came without big-league experience, but that may not be as unusual as it sounds. Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News notes that 10 of the current 30 big-league managers were hired without any minor league managing experience: Dusty Baker, Phil Garner, Ozzie Guillen, Lloyd McClendon, Bob Melvin, Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph, Frank Robinson, Joe Torre, and Alan Trammell.

Happy Valentine's day in Japan
One name that doesn't figure to be in the Royals' mix is Bobby Valentine, who is too busy as superstar manager/franchise-builder with the Chiba Lotte Marines, the perennial cellar-dwellers in Japan who ran off a 12-game winning streak this season and have the best record in Japan's two pro leagues. Valentine, who has virtually full control over the Marines (one of their top sluggers is Benny Agbayani, who played for the Sox in 2002), is paid handsomely and probably would return to the States to manage only if he were offered one of the game's glamour jobs. Valentine, who last year signed a three-year deal with an additional two option years, can get out of his contract with written notice, but the former Mets manager is enjoying his current gig immensely, as the Marines bid for their first championship since 1974, when Valentine was a utilityman for the California Angels.

East Coast to Far East
The Chiba Lotte director of promotions is a Colby graduate, Lawrence Rocca (class of '90), who went to prep school in Maryland with Yankee GM Brian Cashman and as a sportswriter in the New York area (Newark Star Ledger, Newsday) covered Valentine when he managed the Mets. Rocca, whose father was from Leominster, is the first American to hold such a position in Japan, one he landed about a week after writing to Valentine and asking if there might be a job for him.

National exposure awaits
Fox began its national Saturday telecasts yesterday, and while Red Sox-Braves didn't make the cut (Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox), Boston will make eight appearances on the Saturday Game of the Week, including three in a row starting May 28 (at New York, home against the Angels, and at Wrigley Field against the Cubs).

Educated guess
Will Carroll, medical expert for Baseball Prospectus and author of the acclaimed book about steroids, ''The Juice," on Barry Bonds's possible return: ''The reports on Bonds and his [staph] infection came pretty fast and furious, with the truth lying somewhere in the middle. It's reasonable to say that the return is open-ended, but there's certainly enough information to make a prognosis. Much depends on how quickly Bonds wants to come back. Assuming that he wants to return pretty soon and that he works at the level he has over the past decade, we'll give him two weeks to return to activity, two weeks for cardiovascular and functional strengthening, then four weeks for a normal rehab. That puts us at the All-Star break. The wild card is how Bonds intends to get his swing back; will that happen in the rehab or will he need a rehab stint in the minors? That's a baseball decision, one I can't even guess at."

Hurt so bad
When Terry Francona was managing for Birmingham, Ala., in the White Sox system, one of his players was Little Anthony Gordon, a younger brother of Yankees setup man (and former Sox pitcher) Tom Gordon. '' 'Little Anthony' was his given name," Francona said. Gordon tore the labrum of his pitching shoulder and never made it to the big leagues; he now manages a Ford dealership in Haines City, Fla., just outside of Orlando.

Take me out with the crowd
The novelty may have worn off interleague play, but here's the best reason MLB won't be abandoning it soon: Interleague games have drawn an average of 32,663 fans since 1997 -- 13.4 percent more than intraleague games. Last year, the 250 interleague games averaged 32,914, compared with the 30,109 average for intraleague games.

Roger that
What to make of the Roger Clemens trade speculation? Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle writes why it should be ignored: ''Stories are swirling around the country that Clemens will be traded. Don't believe them. He automatically became the face of the franchise when he signed with the Astros 16 months ago. Now he's the face of the entire city with his array of charity work and cheerleading duties at various sporting events. That's why Astros owner Drayton McLane cannot and must not trade Clemens. He simply means too much. No team could give the Astros enough to offset the Rocket's absence."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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