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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Mueller leaves an enduring mark with Sox

He left quietly, which is the way it always was with Bill Mueller, the Sox' Stealth Star from 2003-05.

Mueller signed a two-year deal with the Dodgers Wednesday, ending one of the most amazing tenures of anyone who played baseball for the Red Sox.

Think about it. He played here almost every day for three years at a time when the Sox achieved popularity that bordered on religious fanaticism. He won a batting title for the Red Sox and played Gold Glove-caliber defense. He hit three home runs in a game. In a time when David Ortiz emerged as the Sox' greatest clutch hitter since Yaz, Mueller delivered two of the biggest hits in the history of the franchise. Oh, and does anybody remember that Mueller hit .429 when the Red Sox won their first World Series since World War I?

And yet, somehow, he did it all without anyone really noticing. When it

became official Mueller would no longer play for the Sox, it was barely news. One Boston paper devoted four paragraphs to the transaction and at least one local news station Wednesday night didn't bother to mention that Mueller had officially left. It was certainly not fodder for sports radio.

Amazing. How could anyone fly this far under the radar while playing a big role in the success of the Red Sox at a time like this? Let's face it; the Sox at this hour generate more conversation than anything else in New England. Even in December. And we're not just saying this because Daddy Globe is owned by The New York Times Co., which owns the infamous 17 percent of the ball club.

The Sox manage to make big news almost every day, even when they do nothing but turn the light on for Theo. They hire co-GMs. They shop Manny Ramírez. They bid against the Yankees to retain Johnny Damon. They trade for a 25-year-old former World Series hero. They trade their future star shortstop, then dump their incumbent shortstop. They have the appearance of conflict at the top. They open the ticket windows and folks line up as if somebody was giving out free scratch tickets.

Meanwhile, fans wonder if Nomar will play for the Yankees or if maybe the Rocket will come back to Boston. They fret about losing the only man in the world who can catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. They wait, wait, wait (A Nation Held Hostage: Day 46) . . . for Theo to bring back the days of Camelot.

And, somehow, Bill Mueller leaves and it's not news.

This is the way Mueller always wanted it. In his three years in Boston, he was the consummate professional, a manager's dream, but he did not make a single statement that was remotely provocative or memorable. He was polite and respectful with everyone, but had little to say about his Boston baseball experience. Fans still wax poetic about onetime Sox characters such as Ken Harrelson, Rogelio Moret, and Spike Owen. Mueller did more for the Red Sox than any of them, but who will remember? He never really said hello or goodbye. He just did his job every day.

Mueller hit .302 in his three seasons in Boston, averaging almost 14 homers and 68 RBIs. He hit near the bottom of the order and played his position as well as anyone in the league. Teammates loved him. Hard-core fans appreciated him. Casual fans hardly knew he was there. Mueller was easy to miss in a clubhouse with oversized personalities such as Damon, Curt Schilling, and Kevin Millar.

But he should take a place in the Red Sox Hall of Fame someday because, in addition to everything else, he stroked a single that meant as much as Bernie Carbo's homer, Carlton Fisk's homer, or any of Ortiz's smorgasbord of walkoff hits.

Dave Roberts has been rightfully canonized for his stolen base-heard-round-the-world in the fourth game of the playoffs against the Yankees. The Sox were about to succumb to the Yankees in ignominious fashion when Roberts pinch ran for Millar in the bottom of the ninth. Mariano Rivera was on the mound and the Yankees were three outs from their 40th pennant when Roberts stole second.

What is too often forgotten is that Roberts was driven home when Mueller shot a 1-and-1 pitch past a sprawling Rivera and into center field. Just as Fisk owes much to Carbo, Roberts is indebted to Mueller. Without Mueller's single, Roberts would have expired on second base and the 2004 Red Sox would have been assailed as chokers and true idiots. They would have endured a sweep at the hands of the Yankees.

Mueller, of course, also struck the most important blow of the 2004 regular season when he beat Rivera and the Yankees with a walkoff homer to put an exclamation point on the infamous A-Rod-Varitek brawl game. The game triggered Boston's ferocious second-half comeback and established that Rivera could be beaten.

Mueller didn't have much to say after the walkoff, just as he had little to say when he walked away from Boston Wednesday. There was nothing bitter about his departure. He'll be 35 next year and the Sox have Mike Lowell or Kevin Youkilis to play third base and there was zero expectation that Mueller would be back.

But when you look at Doug's ball or the World Series trophy or the banner that'll forever fly over Fenway, remember the quiet guy who did so much to bring that happiness to the Nation:

Bill Mueller. Stealth Star in a clubhouse of Idiots and Cowboy Uppers.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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