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Long-term shortstop

Confident Lugo believes the Sox are in a position of strength with him for years to come

Julio Lugo is quick with a smile, and the Red Sox will give him 36 million reasons to be happy. Julio Lugo is quick with a smile, and the Red Sox will give him 36 million reasons to be happy. (FILE/JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- My guy will pick you up. He'll be wearing a uniform. Julio Lugo, with a smile and a disarming twinkle in his eye, says no more than that. The driver arrives in a forest-green Range Rover, wearing a different kind of uniform -- fatigues from his day job as a sergeant in the Dominican army. No indication that in his country, Lugo likes to dress, eat, live, and travel in style. It starts to become evident as you notice the Gucci loafers sticking out below his designer jeans, the Chanel sunglasses pushed to the crown of his head, the welcoming advances from the waitstaff at the chic Santo Domingo eatery.

It becomes obvious as he sits -- holding hands with his wife, Sulky, at a table where one can be seen -- amid the chatter of the Tuesday lunchtime crowd in this Americanized restaurant (where even the menus are in English) and waves to indicate all that he has before him.

This is my circle. These are my people.

"I spend most of the year here," the new Red Sox shortstop said, in English perfected from his family's move to Brooklyn when he was 13 years old. "When the season's over, I used to go to Houston. I have a house there. Then I come here to the Dominican when I start working out and I spend most of my time here. I like it here. I feel very good here. I'm a king; I'm a king here."

In a country in which absolute wealth is contrasted by absolute poverty, the 31-year-old Lugo lives, in a sense, removed from his surroundings. It is a life he loves, one made possible by his other great love. Baseball.

Like so many boys in the rest of the Dominican, a place where a baseball field nearly surpasses a church in importance, Lugo grew up wanting nothing more than to make his living playing a game. And he has, earning millions, courtesy of an uncanny athleticism, a knack for hitting, and an enthusiasm that rivals that of his close friend and the Dominican's favorite son, David Ortiz.

"That's where he finds the most joy, on the baseball field," said Perry Keith, the coach at Connors State College in Warner, Okla., where Lugo played before being drafted by the Houston Astros in the 43d round in 1994. "He was that way when he was 18, 19 years old, and he's the same way today."

Uplifting personality
His face crumples with effort, the force of the weights coming down on his weakened body, as he works to ready himself for the upcoming season in a small, tightly packed gym filled with roaming personal trainers and too much equipment. Still fighting off the effects of an illness that has shaved 10 pounds off his already slight frame -- listed at 6 feet 1 inches and 175 pounds, he looks no more than 160 -- Lugo is charged with adding enough bulk to last a season in Boston.

It already has been an offseason of firsts -- his first trip to Europe, touring Paris and Madrid and Rome, his first visit to the Hub as a member of the Red Sox, and his first sense, in years, of a potential postseason trip.

He's also seeking the first solidification of the shortstop position in Boston since Nomar Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs in 2004. Since Garciaparra's departure, the position has been manned by Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, Edgar Renteria, and, most recently, Alex Gonzalez. None stuck, for various reasons, ranging from injuries to defense to offense to contracts.

That will change, Red Sox management hopes, with the advent of the Lugo era, the culmination of a love affair with a player who doesn't have the cachet of more well-known stars.

But if the signing (four years, $36 million) didn't exactly excite the fandom in Boston, it has energized Lugo.

"In Tampa, we were playing for the schedule," he said, a smile playing across his face. "In Boston, we're playing for the postseason."

Different, certainly, for the player many compare to Cabrera, a charismatic man with the energy and spirit to endear himself to a legion of hard-to-please fans. And, after four seasons in Tampa Bay, and a disaster of a second half with the Dodgers last season, Lugo is more than ready for both stability and the chance to win. He plays down his disappointing stats in Los Angeles -- a .219 average with just 10 RBIs, 5 doubles, and 16 runs in 146 at-bats -- and plays up his stats at Fenway -- a .330 average with 9 RBIs, 9 doubles, and 16 runs in 115 at-bats.

"I was just put into a hard situation there and I didn't feel comfortable," Lugo said. "I mean, they had a lot of unhappy people there, a lot of unhappy players. And unhappy players can't produce. No matter what happens, no matter how good a team you are, you're going to lose."

That's nearly the opposite of what he has heard about Boston, where he anticipates loving the chemistry, the camaraderie, the sense of team filling the cramped home clubhouse.

"Everybody's going to see," Lugo said. "I'm going to play hard. I'm going to enjoy my game. Everybody's going to see me jumping around, probably going to see some crazy stuff. Running over here, running over there.

"I have a lot of energy and people feed off of that. Sometimes I need somebody to be like, 'Calm down.' But, you know, that's the way I am. I think I'm going to fit very well here."

Defensive questions
With a career .277 average, .402 slugging percentage, 172 doubles, and 521 runs in seven seasons, Lugo, who came up with the Astros in 2000, stands out as a terrific offensive shortstop, especially as he continues to take more walks and lay off breaking balls away. Add to that his ability to hit leadoff, and Lugo dwarfs Gonzalez as a run producer.

His defense? That's another story.

"I respect everybody as a player, but I'm confident in who I am," said Lugo. "It's like, are you going to fill people's shoes? No. My biggest problem is filling my own shoes.

"I'm not going to look for nobody's spot. I'm going to look for my spot. That was his spot last year, now it's my spot this year. I feel comfortable that I'm going to fill the expectation."

Which might not be that difficult, considering the low expectations of those who have criticized Lugo's fielding. But, from people who know, Lugo's defense isn't a major concern. He will make errors -- certainly more than the seven Gonzalez made in 2006; Lugo has averaged nearly 20 in his career -- but his range, according to just about everyone, is exceptional. Better than Gonzalez's, in fact.

"Very athletic shortstop on balls in the air," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Great range. He has a tendency to make errors throwing and on ground balls, but we expect that. Some shortstops who are very athletic and get to a lot of balls are going to make some errors. He's not going to have the consistent hands and the consistent accuracy of an Alex Gonzalez, but that doesn't mean he can't play the position."

And he seems to be getting better. Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon noticed in spring training that Lugo wasn't always fundamentally sound. Often, Lugo wouldn't step in front with his right foot in making a throw, forcing himself into poor position to make plays.

"I heard different things about throwing issues," said Maddon, who tutored Lugo last season until he was traded to the Dodgers. "He worked on getting his feet straightened out. He threw the ball very well. I thought he played a consistently solid, average to better-than-average shortstop. Great range going to his left.

"The biggest thing with me was he would make the routine play routine when his feet are working properly."

Career-changing incident
His smile, his laughter, and his utter joy at playing baseball are Lugo's most noticeable traits. His face brightens when he talks about the game, and playing for the Red Sox.

But it wasn't always that way. After a game against the Braves in Houston on April 30, 2003, everything changed.

His ex-wife accused him of beating her in a parking lot outside of Minute Maid Park before the game, alleging that he punched her in the mouth and banged her head against a car. About eight hours later, Lugo was arrested on misdemeanor assault charges.

Damning for any player. But Lugo was acquitted. In a trial that concluded July 16, 2003, Lugo's wife changed her story, absolving him for the incident -- which he attributes to a reaction to discussions about divorce.

"That was the worst night of my life because I went from the top all the way to the bottom," said Lugo, his head down, his churrasco steak sitting untouched in front of him. "Then the team just released me for no reason, for something that I'd never done. I was more surprised that that happened to me than anybody else. I was shocked. I was humiliated by my ex-wife; I was humiliated by Houston.

"They made me look guilty right away."

Teammate and friend Octavio Dotel posted bail for him the next morning. But by that time, the damage was complete. The Astros designated him for assignment immediately, which he said he learned through the media. He said they never spoke to him about the charges, never allowed him to tell his story.

"The incident that resulted in Julio leaving the Astros was most unfortunate," said Gerry Hunsicker, then the Astros' general manager and now the Devil Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations. "The decision that was made was an organizational decision. That's about all I can say publicly. I just don't think it's appropriate for me to say anything more than that."

It's something that the Red Sox say they researched extensively before officially signing Lugo in mid-December.

"Any time there's an incident of that nature in a player's past, I think it would be completely irresponsible of the ball club to not investigate fully, and to make a judgment of what the player's behavior has been since and what can be expected going forward," Epstein said. "Julio has done everything he could have done since to develop good character and positive steps going forward. We've put our faith in him that he's the right kind of person going forth for this club."

Lugo still expresses disbelief at the incident, repeating that he was brought up to respect women. Asked what it was like -- that night in the Houston jail, his life and career and reputation about to be changed forever -- he said softly, "You cry. You think the wall is falling right there. As a man, you've got feelings, and as a man, you cry. I'll tell you, I cried."

'I wish I could play today'
A woman, clearly on staff, has opened the door to the small vestibule that leads from the elevator into the apartment, and nods toward the living room, a tastefully decorated place opening out onto a balcony with a view of much of the city. Set on the 14th floor of a building of stark white in a city that tends toward grime, the apartment shows off the riches that have accumulated in Lugo's seven-year stay in the major leagues.

Lugo walks in, notes with pride the value of the art on the walls, and heads out onto the balcony, a space set in neutrals with a scattering of furniture. He looks out, takes in the city, and appears set for a moment of peace. Except he's interrupted by a recent annoyance, the noise of construction equipment from the lot next door.

It has been going on for months and is something he will not miss when he leaves shortly to meet his new team in spring training.

But the noise won't stop. It will build, through the days in Fort Myers, Fla., to the road trip to begin the season, to his debut in Boston. The noise, from fans and media and sports talk-show callers will build and build, until everyone has had a chance to judge the new shortstop.

"A lot of people didn't hear about me because I was in a small-market team, but now it's going to be different," Lugo said. "People are going to know who I am. I'm excited.

"It's not just that I signed with the team. I wish I could play today. I'm telling you from the bottom of my heart, that's how I feel. I just dream about it every day, just to play every day on a team that you hope is going to make it to the postseason.

"Before, I didn't have that. Now I'm going to have a taste for it."

And if he does, if he helps lead this team to back to the World Series, the noise will continue. It will swell to a crescendo, one that Lugo will welcome. In so many ways, he's been waiting for it since his early days in Barahona, his days in Brooklyn, his days in Warner, his days buried on a bad team in a city that rarely paid attention.

Because that, unlike the noise that mars his home here in Santo Domingo, will be his noise. It will mean that people care. And if he does well, if he proves his worth, they will embrace him in a way no city has yet, with a passion that finally equals his.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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