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Short shrift

Lugo has endured a number of trials - knee injury is only the latest setback

They were supposed to be competing, but because Julio Lugo (right) is sidelined with a knee injury, Jed Lowrie will open the season at shortstop. They were supposed to be competing, but because Julio Lugo (right) is sidelined with a knee injury, Jed Lowrie will open the season at shortstop. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - At that moment, when his right knee froze and his mind knew, Julio Lugo cried out.

Something was wrong. The job he wanted, and knew he could fill despite the skepticism around him, was slipping away again.

He had been ready this time, prepared offensively and defensively, to regain what he believed to be his rightful place as the starting shortstop for the Red Sox. He had been ready with a will that said it couldn't be taken away. He would be the player they thought he could be, the player he knows he is.

"It is disappointing," Lugo said of the torn meniscus that will land him on the disabled list to start the season. "But at the same time, things happen for a reason. God works his magic. That's the only way I see it. Something happens, you can't explain why it happens, but it happens. I've been blessed in my life, all the good things I got."

It had happened after an offseason of dedication, making him bigger and stronger and putting him on the brink of reclaiming his position. And though this injury should rob him of only a few weeks of the regular season, unlike the quadriceps strain that cost him nearly half a season in 2008, it was not the way he imagined reintroducing himself to the fan base, to his teammates, to his coaches.

He thought it would be different this time. Instead, it was another misfortune adding to the poor performances, injuries, and weight of his contract. But Lugo is different this time.

"Things that you know you can resolve, it's not a big deal," he said. "I mean, it is a big deal because you're worried, but things that you can resolve, it's not something that you're going to die, somebody's going to die. It's just another bump in the road."

Lugo says that when he returns, things will work out. They have to. As he pounds into his head, "I'm a starting shortstop. I always think [the job is] mine.

"You spend three months in the offseason trying to get ready for baseball. Then you come here and you feel good and you get hurt. You wonder what's going on. What else can you do? At the same time, you've just got to say, 'God, you do what's best and I'm doing my best. If you don't want this to happen, there's nothing else I can do.' "

He has learned acceptance, slowly, tearfully. This is nothing. His meniscus might tear, but he has already been torn.

Lugo glanced at the number on his cellphone. It was an unexpected call, at least for that time of day. His wife never phoned him at the ballpark. Unless there was an emergency.

He knew it was bad. What more could happen? On top of the faulty land deal in the Dominican Republic that had cost him $1.8 million and landed him and his wife in court, on top of the quadriceps injury that had pried six weeks of the season from him, on top of the 18 months in which he had failed at the plate and in the field, his wife was calling him at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

He answered, not knowing that what she would say would destroy him in a way nothing else could.

His wife, Sulky, had a miscarriage two months into her pregnancy. Their child was gone.

"I was like, 'Man, what's going on? What else can happen?' " Lugo said of last season's injury. "And then this happened, my wife lost the baby. See, that I can't fix. I can fix the problems in the Dominican. I can fix my leg. But that I can't fix. This is a problem that can't be fixed."

So he walked out of the clubhouse, out of view of his teammates and coaches, and out to the dugout. He sat down, the words incomprehensible.

"That was the toughest moment last year for me," Lugo said of that Saturday in Toronto. "I know I was hurt and I know that I was coming back and I was going to get better. But when you lose a baby, you know you can't get that back.

"When I injured my leg, it was something that was personal to me. Something that happens to me, I know I can handle. But being hurt, I didn't know how she was going to react, and I didn't know what to say. What can you say to somebody that lost something so valuable for you and your family that can make [her] feel better?

"There's nothing you can say or do that will make her feel better. It's just the time that was going to heal that wound. I felt powerless. I couldn't help her. I couldn't help myself."

Injury and stress
He cried that August day in Baltimore when he injured his quadriceps sprinting. The tears were full of hurt and frustration. Three days later, he received the news of the miscarriage.

"It was almost a blessing," Lugo said of the injury. "Because in that moment, that's when you need to be with somebody you love. You've got to thank God for that."

On Aug. 24, as the Sox flew to New York, Lugo flew home to Boston, to his wife and sons Josmael (now 6) and Julio Alejandro (now 3). Sulky had just come back from the Dominican Republic, from yet another court date in the Lugos's attempt to wrest back the nearly $2 million from people Lugo refers to as "Mafia." He thinks now the stress of that trip led to the miscarriage in her second pregnancy. (Josmael is from a prior relationship.)

Lugo told the Red Sox' coaching staff, with team doctor Larry Ronan helping the couple, and a few teammates.

"She was very sad for months," Lugo said. "She didn't want to do anything, she didn't want to go out, she didn't want to eat, she didn't want to get out of the house. It took her a while to get back to where her body started. She was just real sad for a while.

"She's doing good. We try to put it behind. She always talks about it, but she's doing better now. Her health is better. We're doing better."

Lugo is doing better, even as he rehabs yet again. He wasn't perfect before the meniscus tear that started the rehab clock at three to four weeks from his surgery date. But he was ready to reclaim the starting job, and a legacy that is falling away.

This man, he insists, the one touched by misfortune, is not the man he wants you to know.

Out of synch from start
Lugo is on his knees in the infield, the baseballs bouncing toward him. He smiles, even with the effort of fielding balls from a stationary position, from a position of vulnerability. Nothing has gone right in Boston. He recalls the person he was two years ago, the player with unlimited confidence.

He is the same, and he is different. There is confidence there, an assuredness that makes little sense. His offense has fallen apart, his defense has crumbled, his quadriceps was strained, and now his meniscus is torn. He has found himself worthy of the derision poured down from the stands.

And yet, in his mind, he is the starting shortstop for the Red Sox.

"The toughest part for me is not to be able to do or play the way I play," Lugo said. "That's the only thing.

"I'm really tough on myself because my pride doesn't let me do less than that, just being who I am. I don't want to hit 50 home runs. I just want to be me, and it's the tough part for me, not being able to do that."

The numbers make it easy to see. Before the trade from Tampa Bay that sent Lugo to the Dodgers in 2006, he had a .279 batting average, a .343 on-base percentage, a .408 slugging percentage, and a .751 OPS in 871 career games. In the 278 games since, with Los Angeles and Boston, Lugo has a .243 average, a .309 OBP, a .332 slugging percentage, and a .640 OPS. He went from hitting a home run every 48 at-bats to hitting one every 109 at-bats.

"That's obviously a big difference," said Joe Maddon, his manager in 2006 with the Rays. "I believe one thing with Julio: If he were able to become very comfortable there and feel good about his lot, I think those numbers would come back to normal. There's not a deterioration in his talents. Not at all. That's what I see."

Comfort has been elusive since his departure from Tampa. He never felt it with the Dodgers, wishing they would just let him start at shortstop, the only position he has ever wanted to play. There was little in Boston, the pounds dropping off him after an illness the offseason before he arrived, the batting average sinking lower and lower once he did begin in Boston, the errors mounting.

He only wanted to be himself. He has not been himself in Boston.

"You feel that pressure," said Lugo, 33. "Your average is not there. What are people going to think? What are your coaches thinking? What is your manager thinking? The TV, everybody else.

"You know that look other people give you sometimes when you're not at your peak? I've been in the league for a while, and you know what you're capable of doing and where you should be. And you know what's going on."

Standing tall
It's not as if Lugo is unaware of what the fans think of him. It's not as if he doesn't know how he has performed, in the field and at the plate. He knows.

"It bothers me," he said of getting booed. "It bothers me a lot. At the same time, it makes me stronger. I know that I'm Julio Lugo and that's it.

"Of course you hear the boos. But you know what? At the same time, when you don't play good as an athlete and you don't give what you're supposed to give, you're supposed to be booed.

"I don't blame them. I don't blame them at all. If I don't play good, I'm supposed to be booed."

So the plan for this season, when he's able to return to the field, is to play well.

"I think a lot of it has to do with just getting him to be confident again and believe in his ability," said first base coach Tim Bogar, who played with Lugo in Houston and worked with him on his defense this spring. "I don't think Boston has actually seen him play as well as he can.

"He's not doing anything mechanically incorrect. It's just a matter of being confident and knowing that he can make plays."

To that end, Lugo - who saw Jed Lowrie claim the starting shortstop spot with the latest injury - spent hours taking ground balls with Bogar. Alone in the infield, Lugo ranged to his right and his left. The athleticism was evident.

So, too, was the added weight, the added strength. As Rocco Baldelli, also a teammate in Tampa, said, only half-joking, "He looks like someone drew his body on like a cartoon character that has those rippling muscles like a superhero."

That began last season, when all Lugo could do was work out, and has left him nearing 188 pounds, after being listed at 175 a year ago. It helped that he found out in the offseason that he was lactose intolerant, helping him quell his stomach discomfort and allowing him to train without distraction.

While rehabbing, he gained muscle. He gained confidence. He began listening.

"In 2007, in the spring, I mentioned to him that I felt like he was more hunched over at the plate than he was in Tampa when I looked at [video] when he was at his best playing for the Rays," hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "He was always standing up there tall. I showed him the side-by-side once the season started and he agreed with it, but he just never felt comfortable standing up tall.

"He showed up this spring standing up tall."

Good reviews
There were times last season when Lugo would get angry. Not frustrated, angry. He asked himself the same questions fans did. What happened? Why was he not the player he had been with Tampa Bay?

"That's still who I am," Lugo said. "I just enjoy the game. I enjoy it every time I step on the field. I play with energy. That's who I am. Sometimes you're not as happy as you want to be. But I always enjoy it. I'm a young man playing in the big leagues, making a lot of money. What else can I ask for?"

Success in Boston, perhaps. First, though, he must return to the job. Though Lowrie performed well in Lugo's absence last season, and has earned the job by default to start this season, his versatility makes him better suited than Lugo to a utility role. But there are no guarantees for Lugo when he returns, even though he's owed $18 million on his four-year contract.

He doesn't want to sit on the bench. He doesn't want to split time. He doesn't want to hit ninth in the order. He has stopped short of saying that he will ask for a trade if he isn't named the starter when he returns.

Still, he hasn't proven - at least in Boston - that he deserves all that he wants.

"When your mind is not in the right stage, it's like when your computer is not in the right stage," Lugo said. "You add up two plus two and it gives you five instead of four. The computer is not acting up the right way, it's not giving you the right information.

"What it means is that when you're not in the right stage of mind, it's impossible for you to play good. When you don't feel comfortable, when you don't feel good with yourself, good with your team, it's impossible for you to feel good. And that's how I felt."

He felt good in camp. He felt comfortable. Reviews from all corners had been good, on his defense and his confidence. He knew that feeling. He had had it before. When he was, as he says, Julio Lugo.

Then his knee locked up. He made a signal to the dugout to take him out of the game, and out of the running to be Boston's Opening Day shortstop. So he rehabs now, knowing this latest setback will make him stronger. Knowing a knee injury can hardly break him now. He knows devastation, and this is nothing.

"People always doubted me," Lugo said. "I don't think people still believe I can be a shortstop. It bothers me, but it gives me more strength at the same time.

"Because I know there's not a lot of players like me out there - that I know. If I don't fit on one team, I'm sure I'm going to fit somewhere else. I'm not the type of player that's going to be sitting on the bench. Not yet."

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

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