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Prey time

Timlin relaxes away from camp by going on hunt

Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin, an avid hunter, takes aim at Wingshooters Hunting Preserve in Immokalee, Florida.
Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin, an avid hunter, takes aim at Wingshooters Hunting Preserve in Immokalee, Florida. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

LA BELLE, Fla. -- Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin is going to extraordinary lengths for good, fresh barbecue.

It's late in the afternoon and he's dressed in camouflage, sitting in a blind 12 1/2 feet above the fringe of the Everglades. His famous right pitching arm is just inches away from a loaded bow and arrow.

The intended target earlier in the February day at spring training in Fort Myers was Jason Varitek's glove. But now it is a feral hog that Timlin hopes will wander into his crosshairs sometime around dusk. Timlin, wary of being detected by his prey, speaks in a whisper.

''It's all about visualizing a precise target," says Timlin, who drove here with fellow Red Sox pitchers Tim Wakefield and Matt Ginter, a nonroster invitee who pitched last year for the Detroit Tigers.

''With archery, you have to visualize where you want the arrow to go," he added. ''It's the same thing with pitching. I don't look at Varitek's glove. I look inside his glove. It's a focus control. His webbing is real loose. Light will show through sometimes, or a lace. So that's a smaller area. If the kill zone on a pig is the size of a football, I aim for the laces."

Spend two hours whispering and waiting with the reliever in a hunting preserve, and one thing is for sure. He's in hog heaven.

''I enjoy being out among God's creations," he says.

Conditions are perfect: 75 degrees and sunny; no wind, no mosquitoes. Not like the time Timlin shot an 11-point buck in a raw, 40-degree rainstorm in Kansas.

Timlin faces the sinking sun, watches hawks soar, and listens to a cow moo in the distance. He occasionally sips some cool mineral water. Unlike native Florida rocker Tom Petty, who sings, ''the waiting is the hardest part," Timlin enjoys the downtime.

''This is what I do to unwind."

Wingshooters Hunters Preserve is a 4,000-acre site in LaBelle, halfway between Fort Myers on the west coast and Lake Okeechobee in the center of the state. It's an area so remote that the neighboring road is a dead end where locals like to target shoot at their old television sets and appliances. ''It's redneck territory," says Timlin.

Timlin thinks hunters have gotten a black eye since Vice President Dick Cheney shot his friend while quail hunting last month. ''That was an accident," says Timlin, a Bush-Cheney supporter who hails from the president's childhood home of Midland, Texas.

Timlin says being a hunter is not an issue in liberal Massachusetts. ''Nobody has said anything to me. Nothing. I don't feel like I have to defend myself because I enjoy it."

As for the hog? ''Don't worry about them, they breed like rabbits."

Experts say there is a feral pig explosion in Florida, with a population of half a million, second only to Texas.

''They are a nuisance and causing lots of problems digging up roots and eating agricultural crops," says William Giuliano, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida at Gainesville. ''And they are good eating. Especially the pulled pork."

Today, Timlin is sharing a 4-foot-wide blind with a nervous photographer who does not want to become the ''other white meat."

Setting their sights
Timlin has been hunting most of his life. He shot his first duck in Texas when he was just 11 years old. He took up bow and arrow hunting in 1994. An expert shot, he's been featured on several television hunting shows. ''I'm not a super hunter, I'm an avid hunter, " he says.

But hunting in baseball season is nearly impossible. The players get only one day off a month. Early in spring training, workouts end around 12:30 p.m., enough time to shower, go home, and get your weapon of choice.

On the one-hour drive out to the preserve, the three pitchers swap hunting stories. No one mentions baseball.

The owner of the preserve, Don Teston, teases them on arrival. ''The hogs are gonna be safe tonight," he says.

Teston is not in awe of the major leaguers. ''All I know is that they throw a baseball sometimes," he says. ''Mike is a real good hunter. Tim has killed several hogs."

The trio warm up by shooting target practice for an hour. Their accuracy from 40 feet is sprinkled with bull's-eyes. Wakefield, particularly, is on his game. The knuckleballer shoots straight as an arrow.

Then, as the afternoon light softens and the shadows get longer, Joe Dirt (as Timlin calls him) picks the Sox players up in an old wheezing Jeep with no doors. He drives each pitcher to a separate blind, each one located near a feeder. From each perch, there is no other human in sight.

Dirt warns a visitor about the wild boars, who have razor sharp teeth.

''They got a hold of a couple of my dogs," says Dirt, whose real name is Joe Lowry. ''Tore 'em up real, real bad. I had to use a staple gun to hold them together. I used 85 staples on one, 65 on the other."

Dirt throws a handful of cracked corn and disappears.

Timlin explains the ground rules to a photographer, who only shoots photographs.

''Pigs see kind of bad, but their hearing is excellent," he says. ''Don't shoot until after I shoot. Then if we hit one, we don't go after it right away. We've got to track 'em."

Some feral hogs can run 200 yards after they are wounded and the surrounding area is swampy.

Timlin wants to harvest the meat. ''You have to look and listen after the shot," he says. ''I don't condone shooting things and leaving 'em laying in there. They're as fast as deer, they're tough. If wounded or cornered, they are nasty."

Timlin says using a bow and arrow is more exciting than a gun.

''When you shoot a gun, you point it at a target and never actually see the bullet. With an arrow, you can actually see the arrow leave and get to the target, but you have to be a lot closer."

Timlin is asked if he'll guarantee bringing home the bacon.

''No guarantees," he answers. ''We may not see any."

Shooting the breeze
Timlin turned 40 March 10. He looks younger than he did last year. ''It's the facial hair," he says. ''Me, Wake, and Schilling all turn 40 this year. I hope to be pitching for Team USA on my birthday."

Indeed, he did. Timlin pitched in relief of Roger Clemens in Team USA's 17-0 win over South Africa in the World Baseball Classic.

The reliever had perhaps his best season last year. He made 81 appearances, more than any pitcher in baseball. He was lights out at Fenway Park (a 1.34 ERA) and he became the closer when Keith Foulke was hurt.

''God gave me strength all year long, " he says. ''I love baseball, love it more than hunting."

That is the opposite of Foulke, who has said he doesn't like baseball.

Is Foulke self-destructing?

''No," says Timlin. ''He'll be OK."

A turkey vulture skims the sky.

Timlin, a born-again Christian, starts whispering about the importance of faith and the beauty of the earth.

''It's a good prayer time. I get to see things."

So what happens when a pitcher and hitter both pray to God at the same time?

Timlin smiles.

He quotes a passage from the Book of James about the joy of the encounter. He says sometimes the prayers don't work. ''It happened a lot when I was blowing a lot of saves while I was playing for Baltimore."

But he thinks there is a lesson in that.

''Maybe the guy hitting was a Christian, too, and God knew he needed a lift," Timlin says. ''God knew I could handle it. God doesn't care what my ERA is."

The longer the wait, the more signs of life emerge.

A shimmy in the palmetto bush? A squirrel.

Another movement? A quail.

A field mouse, and then a sign, or actually three.

A cardinal, a blue jay, and an oriole all make cameo appearances within 20 yards of Timlin.

''I played for all those teams," says the 16-year veteran, who has played on three championship teams (two in Toronto, one in Boston).

Timlin says hunting has some similarities to baseball.

''It is a one-on-one thing," he explained. ''So is baseball. But then again, not really, 'cause in baseball everybody else can help you out."

Timlin turns his head slowly, because he hears something in the palmetto. It's a white-tailed deer, who has sneaked up from behind. Her eyes are huge.

The deer reacts and starts making a noise, as if she's hyperventilating. As she runs away, she stops several times to repeat the call.

''That's called blowing," whispered Timlin. ''She must have smelled us and now she's giving a warning to others."

Mission accomplished
We sit in silence. The sun is below the tree line and sinking fast. It's 6:05 p.m., totally dark in Boston, but it's the ninth inning for daylight here.

After minutes that seem like hours, Timlin tenses. Out of the brush comes a feral pig, slowly and cautiously. Then another. They start chomping on the corn.

Timlin slowly reaches for the bow.

Then a larger sow comes running down the trail.

She starts gobbling corn. Timlin stands up, ever so slowly. But he is screened by a tree.

He leans over the photographer, who slowly moves his equipment out of the way.

Looking through the scope he draws the Easton arrow back from the Mathews Solo Cam bow. The pig, now 15 yards away, is oblivious, inhaling the corn. Timlin takes a deep breath, exhales, and fires. The arrow travels twice as fast as Timlin's 93-mile-per-hour fastball.

Bull's-eye.

The three pigs instantly scatter in three different directions, the big one limping, and the smallest one stopping for one more gulp of corn. Timlin is still, watching and listening.

The sow starts screaming from the brush. Loudly.

''She's not having a good day," Timlin says.

The pitcher's still whispering, but he's exhilarated and full of adrenaline.

''The only thing I'm thinking . . . I'm concentrating because when you shoot from the elevated position, you don't shoot exactly where you want to go. You shoot a little lower than where you actually want to go," Timlin would say later.

''A good shot. She finally moved away a little bit and I drilled her. See the arrow down there. Still stuck in the sand. It's good blood. It goes right through them. Probably right above the heart. She ran about 40 yards over there. There's two pine trees. It broke her left front leg. I shot her on the right side, it went through and broke her left shoulder. She screamed for a little bit but she's probably done now. She gave a serious death squeal. She's kicking and then all of a sudden, wheeeh, and then stop.

''She's over there . . ." he says. ''They're creatures of habit -- they follow the trails. So I'm going to check the arrow, follow the blood trail, see if we can find her, if you feel adventurous."

Detective Timlin studies the tall grass and finds a trail of blood. The sun has set and it's getting dark.

The pig is exactly where he said it would be, right between two skinny pine trees that stick up like goal posts.

In the darkness, he drags the still warm 100-pound pig to the road.

''I love you for doing that," says Joe Dirt, who shows up in the Jeep.

Dirt picks up Wakefield and Ginter, both of whom never saw any hogs. Wakefield saw several deer and talked about their majestic beauty, backlit by the sun.

Ginter saw a bobcat, but the bobcat saw him and never gave him a clear shot.

Back at camp, Joe Dirt makes a roaring fire, and the hunters pose for photos.

On Timlin's cellphone there's already a text message from Trot Nixon, looking for results.

Dirt skins the hog and packs the meat on ice. He also calls over Timlin to share his necropsy report.

''The arrow went through the right lung and pierced the heart," he says.

Then he slices a little off the side and holds it in the air between a knife and a fork.

''Anyone want some fresh bacon?"

Timlin remembers a special takeout request.

''David Wells asked me to bring him back some for breakfast," he says. ''And I'd like to get some sausages made up in Fort Myers. That sounds good."

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