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Not bad at all for first try

Learning first base could increase Mike Lowell’s value to the Red Sox, or another team. Learning first base could increase Mike Lowell’s value to the Red Sox, or another team. (File/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 16, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Even before a successful debut at first base, Mike Lowell politely declined interview requests, preferring to string together a few performances before he’s ready to comment about playing again.

Being the most accessible Red Sox player of the last four years, he’s built up much goodwill. And the fans gave him a roaring ovation when he was introduced and another when he first stepped to the plate in the Sox’ 8-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles yesterday.

Suffice to say, this hasn’t been an easy spring training for Lowell.

Consider all he’s had to go through: trying to get healthy with his hip and thumb, and trying to learn first base, which is difficult psychologically since he has been a Gold Glove third baseman and probably hates the idea of playing more first than third.

On top of that, he’s 36 and auditioning for a job.

Lowell still can hit, but the scouts who attended yesterday’s game want to see how he moves and whether he’s in pain. The consensus was unanimous — he looked mobile enough, but slow on the base paths. If he continues to show mobility, the Red Sox should have no problem making a deal for him, provided, as a National League scout said, “they pick up the majority of the contract.’’

There’s no reason to believe the Sox wouldn’t. They were willing to eat $9 million of the $12 million deal with the Rangers until Texas nixed the deal for catcher/DH Max Ramirez when it discovered the ligament tear in Lowell’s right thumb.

Lowell showed no ill effects from surgery to his thumb. He singled to right in his first at-bat, flew out in his second, and left after three innings. He also made two putouts at first.

“He looked good,’’ said occasional first baseman David Ortiz.

Lowell has spent his last five spring trainings at City of Palms Park. Now it’s become his temporary holding area, a place to perform and audition, if you will, until the next suitor comes along. His next showcase comes tonight in Port Charlotte, Fla., pending his condition.

It can’t feel good for Lowell, who has been a great performer for a team that took him as a “throw in’’ to get Josh Beckett, despite his big contract. Well, in the process of taking on a big contract the Sox got a big-time performer, a man who had the biggest hits at the biggest moments — he was the World Series MVP in 2007 — and who has one of the biggest hearts you’ll ever see.

Lowell, who muddled through last season with a repaired right hip, started showing fatigue before midseason. He still hit 17 homers and knocked in 75 runs while hitting .290 in 119 games and he had a better statistical season than his replacement, Adrian Beltre, had in Seattle (.265, 8 HRs, 44 RBIs, 111 games). Before the All-Star break, Lowell began taking Synvisc shots, a lubricant that cushions the joint so he doesn’t feel bone on bone. He took a few of those shots between the break and for the remainder of the season. Although he played in 68 of the first 81 games, he often sat for long stretches in the second half — missing 30 games. Lowell insisted he could have played more.

By the last weekend of the season he had injured his thumb on a swing, but the tear went undetected until the Rangers discovered it during their examination, so the Sox had to take Lowell back and signed his replacement.

It’s an awkward situation he wouldn’t wish on anyone.

There’s talk now about keeping Lowell as a righthanded bat off the bench, or insurance in case Ortiz, who homered yesterday, doesn’t come out of his funk. The Sox have said they’re not looking to deal Lowell, but that’s what they have to say. Lowell knows the real story because he met with general manager Theo Epstein when he arrived at camp. He’s a big boy and he’s in a big-boy situation. He knows what the solution is — a trade.

So much of what’s ahead will be up to Lowell. If he’s really good, he’ll get traded. If he’s limited, he likely will stay because of lack of interest. If Lowell is healthy he’d want to play. If he isn’t, while never a disruptive player, it would make for an unhappy player and nobody wants that.

Lowell said earlier in camp his hip feels 10 times stronger than last season, but the reality is it probably won’t get better.

Teammates don’t want him to go. Dustin Pedroia and Beckett love Lowell. Tim Wakefield was effusive in his praise after he pitched yesterday and feels badly for Lowell.

“Absolutely, anybody would,’’ Wakefield said. “It’s not fun to be in that situation. On the other hand, you look at it as a business deal. From a personal standpoint, for me, I’m glad that he didn’t get traded to Texas this offseason because, by far, he’s the most professional guy I’ve played with. He’s been a tremendous teammate and a leader in this clubhouse and that’s something that would have been sorely missed had he been traded to Texas.’’

But although Lowell could feel better early in the season, how will he feel by September or October? Therein is the dilemma for the Sox or any team that deals for him. Nobody knows the answer.

Lowell doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He’ll earn $12 million in the last season of a three-year, $36 million deal. He’s a major leaguer who has had a good career, one that will likely reach the next phase shortly.

The fans respect him for not only what he’s done on the field, but because he actually turned down more money from the Phillies in 2008 — a decision that cost him another World Series ring — to stay where he liked to play.

Lowell will remember some things fondly, and others not so much. The Sox once entertained talks with Colorado for first baseman Todd Helton. The Sox also pretty much had Lowell gone when they were pursuing Mark Teixeira two years ago. The Sox certainly never intended to disrespect Lowell, but the relationship has deteriorated.

That hasn’t stopped Lowell from taking shortstop Jose Iglesias under his wing and helping make his transition to major league camp that much easier. Lowell understands what Iglesias has gone through and the uneasiness the young shortstop feels having his family in Cuba. Lowell’s parents defected from Cuba.

But Lowell looked natural at first base. He had to hold runners. He had to sprint to first base from his positioning around the bag twice to take throws. While it’s a corner infield spot, it’s a different movement from third base.

In his first day, in his first showcase, Lowell may have begun to play his way out of Boston.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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