|Whether pitching as a starter or in relief, Alfredo Aceves (with catcher Jason Varitek) has given the Red Sox a quality effort. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)|
Aceves applies himself
He’s taken to all jobs Sox have asked
Alfredo Aceves was on deck, waiting for his first at-bat in Little League, when his friend Omar squared to bunt. The ball hit the bat and deflected smack into Omar’s face.
As coaches attended to his friend, young Alfredo turned around and walked back to the dugout. As far as he was concerned, his baseball career was over.
“I saw what happened to my amigo. That wasn’t going to happen to me,’’ Aceves said. “They said, ‘Alfredo, where are you going?’ But I just left.’’
That his father, Alfredo Sr., was a slugging first baseman in the Mexican League or that his older brother, Jonathan, was a player talented enough to get signed by the White Sox did not matter. Alfredo was done with baseball.
Entranced by the images of Michael Jordan on television, basketball became his game.
“Oh, my father was mad,’’ Aceves said. “He wanted me to play baseball. That was the sport in my house. But I wanted to be Dennis Rodman. I liked him.’’
In time, Aceves ceded to the wishes of his father and returned to baseball. But a personal blueprint had been established, one that Aceves follows to this day. The path he takes will be his own, whatever the consequences. What others see as stubbornness he calls faith.
It was faith that led him to holding the World Series trophy in a parade through the streets of New York. Then stubbornness earned him his release from the Yankees 13 months later. Now faith has him pitching well for the first-place Red Sox. But that old devil of stubbornness always lurks.
When he was 19, Aceves fulfilled his father’s dreams and signed with the Blue Jays. He was assigned to their team in the Dominican Summer League and pitched well. But when Toronto told Aceves he would return to that team the following year, he quit and returned to play in Mexico for six seasons.
“How can I say this? I know what I am and I know I am not easy,’’ Aceves said. “If you want easy, I’m not the man. But if you believe in me, I will believe in you.’’
The Red Sox believe, having watched Aceves post a 3.29 earned run average in 16 games this season. He has thrown as many as 98 pitches in a game and as few as 8. Aceves is the only pitcher in baseball this season with at least one start and one save.
The righthander is the Swiss Army Knife of pitchers, capable of whatever you need. In an age of specialization, Aceves is unique in that he has no set role.
“What he does is very unusual,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “It’s a great piece to have on your team. There’s so much value there.’’
The Yankees felt the same way. Aceves was 14-1 with a 3.21 ERA over parts of three seasons in New York after being purchased from the Monterrey Sultans. In 2009, when the Yankees won the World Series, he appeared in 43 games during the regular season and four more in the playoffs.
“He was tremendous,’’ manager Joe Girardi said. “I don’t know how many times he bailed us out of jams.’’
Less than a year later, that had changed. A back injury limited Aceves to 10 games and the Yankees came to believe he was too comfortable with life on the disabled list. Even Girardi, who rarely utters a negative word about his players, joked about Aceves having disappeared.
In November, Aceves shattered his left collarbone when he fell off a bicycle in Mexico. It required a series of screws and a titanium rod for doctors to mend all the fractures.
A few days later, the Yankees released Aceves.
“We were caught off guard by it,’’ said Tom O’Connell, Aceves’s agent. “There were no hints. You usually don’t see a player released like that when he’s hurt.’’
Aceves relocated to Miami and under the supervision of a personal trainer, Brent Anderson, rebuilt his body. He lost 20 pounds, strengthened the muscles in his back, and found that the broken bones in his left shoulder did not inhibit his ability to pitch.
“The Yankees wanted me to sign a minor league contract. I said no. I knew I belonged in the big leagues,’’ Aceves said. “I waited.’’
As other players signed and roster spots filled up, Aceves remained patient. The Red Sox sent their top scout, Allard Baird, to Miami to have dinner with Aceves and O’Connell. That led to a trip to Boston and a bullpen session at Fenway Park.
On Feb. 8, just a few days before the start of spring training, Aceves agreed to just what he wanted all along, a major league contract.
“I thought the Yankees had the best organization,’’ he said. “But I knew the Red Sox also had a great organization. The Mets wanted me too. But I wanted to leave New York.’’
The Red Sox never expected a valuable Yankee to fall into their laps for $650,000.
“We liked him; we always liked him,’’ Francona said. “We probably got a break.’’
Aceves pitched well in spring training but started the season with Triple A Pawtucket. He spent two weeks in the majors in April then was called up again on May 6.
In the weeks since, Aceves has done just about everything on the mound short of raking it. He saved the bullpen with 4 2/3 innings of relief in a lopsided loss against the Twins on May 6. He allowed one run in six innings as a starter against the Tigers on May 26. In the wild 14-inning game against Oakland on June 4, it was Aceves who got the win by going four innings.
The game he treasures most came last Wednesday at Yankee Stadium when Aceves went 3 2/3 innings and picked up a save. His fastball hit 97 miles per hour that night.
“I didn’t know I could do that,’’ he said, pounding his chest. “It was heart.’’
Pitching coach Curt Young finds Aceves fascinating.
“He pitches backward,’’ Young said. “In a fastball count, he will throw a changeup. When you expect an offspeed pitch, he throws a fastball and he has a really good one. From that time he spent in Mexico; he knows all the tricks. The guy can really pitch.’’
As always with Aceves, there are occasional hurdles. He wanders into meetings late and earlier this season roused Francona’s ire by getting called for a balk on a move to first base that he was told to abandon.
But unlike the button-down Yankees, the Red Sox are more tolerant of players who hear their own music. Manny Ramirez flourished in Boston, as did Julian Tavarez for a time.
“You’re not always going to be on the same page. That doesn’t make somebody a bad person,’’ Francona said. “But let’s figure out where we make it better. That’s always how I feel.
“He does mean well, I know that. We don’t want 25 robots. We just want to make sure they’re all going in the same direction.’’
Along the way, the Red Sox have discovered their unique pitcher is equally a unique character.
Aceves is an accomplished guitar player. Like baseball, it is a gift passed down by his father. From memory, he can play songs from classic rock bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and once entertained a group of sick children visiting Yankee Stadium with a soulful rendition of “Message In A Bottle’’ by The Police.
“A lot of us play the guitar, just fooling around,’’ teammate Daniel Bard said. “He can really play. He’s good.’’
In 2008, while playing for the Yankees’ minor league team in Trenton, N.J., Aceves proposed to his girlfriend, Arley, during the game. The crowd cheered. They are now married and hoping to start a family.
Aceves also is a man of faith. He used a blue pen to etch a small cross into the red “B’’ on his cap and wears a Roman Catholic devotional scapular under his uniform. One of the small prayer cards rests on his chest, the other across his back.
“I think I’m a simple person,’’ Aceves said. “I love God. I love to play baseball and I love my family.’’
But that simple person also wears No. 91 in honor of Rodman, the unorthodox basketball player he once wanted to emulate. It’s his way of reminding everybody that the man inside the uniform is his own man.
“I think I can be one of the best pitchers in the game,’’ Aceves said. “People don’t believe me when I say that. But I believe it and that’s all that matters.’’