FORT MYERS, Fla. - What would a Red Sox training camp be without a classic car story? This one, however, has nothing to do with Manny Ramírez and everything to do with Buford T. Justice, as channeled by relief pitcher Dan Kolb.
As fans of the cult classic, "Smokey and the Bandit," can tell you, Buford T. was the sheriff played by Jackie Gleason, who spent most of the movie chasing Burt Reynolds and Sally Field across the South in their 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, making an instant legend out of a set of American muscle wheels.
"I have the 'Smokey and the Bandit' car," Kolb said yesterday. "The original, with 17,000 miles on it. Not the one used in the movie, but a replica of it. The original car with the original motor, 455, with 17,000 miles on it."
That's just one of the cars Kolb has in his collection. There's also a 1969 Pontiac Firebird, which recently finished third in a Milwaukee auto show even though it had only been partially restored; an '86 pickup that he had redone; a 1991 GMC Stepside pickup truck; a 2002 Trans Am; and a couple of other classics, all of which he keeps in a garage built by his brother. "We keep those cars in there all winter," said Kolb, who lives in Wisconsin. "We never let it get warmer than 60 degrees in there, or colder than 55."
Kolb is the son of a former drag racer who used to run the tracks in downstate Illinois, around Peoria, but quit when Kolb was born. "I think my mother had something to do with that," he said. "She didn't want him killing himself."
But his uncle also raced, a stock car driver on the local dirt tracks. "I grew up on cars," Kolb said. "My dad built the motors in the cars my uncle raced. I was always down in the pits, seeing what's happening. I've got to be under the hood."
Kolb would have driven one of his vehicles to camp, but he learned the hard way that might not be a good idea. In 2003, while with the Rangers, he drove a '91 pickup to camp, but someone broke off the door locks and smashed the driver's window just to steal the radio.
The next year, he drove the 2002 Trans Am to camp, but was mortified to come out of a mall with his wife and find that one of two men brawling in the parking lot landed in the backseat of his car, having gone through the rear windshield.
"I'm renting this spring," he said, "from Enterprise."
Kolb is a former All-Star closer for the Milwaukee Brewers who is trying to win a job in the Sox pen as a nonroster camp invitee, which is what happens to guys when they've spent the last three years in professional free fall. After his breakout season, 2004, in which he saved 39 games for Milwaukee, he was traded to the Braves, who were moving John Smoltz back to the rotation and thought Kolb would keep them in championship contention.
Instead, Kolb had a career-altering meltdown, going 3-8 with a 5.93 ERA and 11 saves. He went back to Milwaukee the next year hoping to recapture the old magic, then hit bottom last season with Pittsburgh, when he essentially quit in frustration at midseason, stuck in the minor leagues. But the Sox sent scout Keith Champion to see him work out at Milwaukee's Miller Park in January, where he also threw for the Brewers and Athletics, and offered him a minor league contract with a chance to make the club in big-league camp.
Kolb had major elbow issues earlier in his career, but there was no physical explanation for his poor performance in Atlanta.
"I put way too much pressure on myself when I was there," he said, "and it was all my fault."
It didn't help that he and Leo Mazzone, the celebrated pitching coach, had opposing views on pitching. "I live and die inside with my two-seamer," he said. "Leo preaches the four-seamer, down and away. We were oil and water."
But Kolb lays nothing on Mazzone. He was the one who failed. He went back to Milwaukee, seeking to recapture the mid-90s sinker that he said had 6 inches of sink and moved 6 inches across the plate. "It didn't happen. I went back there expecting miracles," he said. "But I still hadn't dealt with the demons from Atlanta. There wasn't going to be a miracle."
Pittsburgh? "There was a ridiculous amount of frustration from the day I walked into camp," said Kolb, who thought he had a job coming out of camp, was released, then asked to re-sign, and found himself in procedural limbo in the minors before deciding to quit. "I made a rash decision."
But to his surprise, he said, it had a positive benefit, as he discovered at his January tryout. "I got on the mound," he said, "and for the first time in three years I was free and clear. There were radar guns pointed at me, and I didn't see them. I was throwing and not worried about where it was going to go. I believe it freed me up."
That feeling, he said, has stayed with him here. "I know I'm here fighting for a job," he said, "and I'm going to give it all I got, but if it isn't good enough, I'll go to Triple A and get myself back.
"I'm not getting any younger [he's 32]. I've got almost eight years in [the big leagues], and I've been playing for 13. It's not like time is running out, but it's getting shorter. I'd love to be on this team, but if it doesn't work out, it won't be the end of the world."
However it works out, he'll have a sweet ride waiting for him at home.
Skipping and runningWhile Ramírez skipped out of yesterday's conditioning drills, including the 300-yard shuttle run, David Ortiz was excused because of his knee, manager Terry Francona said. Rookies Chris Carter and Jacoby Ellsbury, along with Coco Crisp, turned in the top times, the manager said . . . General manager Theo Epstein insisted that people are mistaken to assume the center field job is automatically going to Ellsbury. It's possible, of course, that Epstein is looking to maintain Crisp's trade value, especially since it might take an injury on another club for a strong market to develop for Crisp. One industry source said Crisp might have been headed to Atlanta before the Braves dealt for Mark Kotsay. The source said he doubted the Twins would revisit trade talks for Crisp . . . Mike Lowell won a ping-pong round-robin tournament against Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis . . . Alex Cora, who was arrested on the other side of the state last month and briefly held in jail before posting $20,000 bond, said the charges were based on a missed court appearance in 2001 for a probation violation on a 1999 DUI arrest that occurred when Cora was playing for the Dodgers. The Palm Beach Post reported that Cora had failed to complete community service and other portions of his plea agreement. He was released on $20,000 bond. "It's in the past," Cora said. "We just found out. We were doing a lot of stuff for personal reasons and this came out, and I was like, 'Oh, I've got to turn myself in.' We thought it was over, and obviously it wasn't." Cora wouldn't comment on whether the situation was fully resolved.
Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.