|MIKE LOWELL Steady and ready|
FORT MYERS, Fla. - One of the more popular players in Red Sox history, Mike Lowell, World Series Most Valuable Player, probably could let a few things slide and take a mulligan or two.
Not a chance.
When manager Terry Francona mentioned Lowell the other day he went out of his way to point out that the third baseman came into camp in even better shape than he was in last season. He used Lowell as an example of why the Sox have a good chance to repeat, because leaders like Lowell simply aren't content to let the 2007 Series victory define them for the next few years.
"I know at this point what it takes to get ready," Lowell said. "It's been trial and error over the years. I tried heavy, heavy weights for an extended period of time. I think part of that really helped one year, and now I've just found the right balance to get ready for the baseball season."
In the offseason Lowell turned down a very strong four-year offer from the Phillies, which he admits he thought about momentarily, before settling for three years with the Red Sox.
"I don't think the contract motivates me or makes me complacent," he said. "I just enjoy putting up numbers. That's a good challenge for me. If I feel I'm going to do that, there are certain things I need to do to get ready."
And there was the loyalty thing.
"Certainly, there's a certain factor when a team extends you the security of three years, you want to return the favor," he said. "I think it's your responsibility. I don't think the fact that you have X number of years and X number of guaranteed dollars should really change your approach."
Lowell looks slimmer and he's already made a few outstanding plays at third base. His quickness still appears top-notch. His bat speed also is on par for the player who hit 21 homers, knocked in 120 runs, and hit .324 last season.
With Kevin Youkilis starting at third base yesterday in Bradenton in the Sox' 6-3 loss to the Pirates, it's a sign Lowell likely will get his share of rest this season. The Sox have ensured that both corner infielders won't be overworked with the acquisition of free agent first baseman Sean Casey, who will spell Youkilis at first base and allow Youkilis to shift to third when Lowell sits.
But Lowell hopes those days are kept to a minimum. He doesn't like to take too many days off - he played in 154 games last year and 153 the year before - though he appreciates being able to just sit back for a day or two.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel spent time with Lowell when the team was courting him last winter.
"The first thing I loved is what his bat would have meant in our lineup," said Manuel. "He's got a great swing for our ballpark. There's no question when we sat down to evaluate the options we had out there, Mike Lowell fit really well with us. I thought we had really good conversations. I could tell what a great person he was and I thought maybe we could get him.
"But in the end he was loyal to the Red Sox. I completely understood where he was coming from, and I had more and more respect for him by the time he told us he was going back to Boston. You can see why they wanted a guy like that on their team."
Lowell said, "I enjoyed talking to [Manuel] and [assistant general manager] Ruben Amaro. It was very enticing. You look at a team like the Phillies . . . to put yourself in a lineup where you're gonna have guys like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard - there's a lot of really good players and I felt like that was a great ballpark for me and they were a little lefthanded-dominant, so I definitely fit."
How close did he come?
"There was a moment where if it wasn't Boston it was going to be Philly," Lowell said. "But I think once there was an effort by Boston to go to three years and we were moving towards, I don't want to say fair in this industry because I think when you make major league minimum [$390,000] you're overpaid, but as the Red Sox moved toward market value I felt we were going in the right direction. But I didn't see the need to close any doors at that time and, like I said, I enjoyed my talks with Charlie."
Lowell did quickly rule out the Yankees, who at first spoke to him about replacing Alex Rodriguez and then about switching to first base.
"I was not opposed to speaking to the Yankees, but I didn't want to switch positions," Lowell said. "Once Alex signed back, I don't think there was much of an issue there. I enjoy third base too much. Plus, I don't know how I would come to hate the guys in our clubhouse. You look at that field [Yankee Stadium], and that field doesn't cater to me."
Fenway Park does. Lowell hit .373 with 14 homers and 73 RBIs at Fenway.
It was clear that three more years at Fenway, playing in front of fans who adore him, trumped even the generosity of the Phillies and the great talks with Manuel.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.