In limbo, Lowell takes high road
Veteran realizes he's auditioning for other clubs this spring
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There was no hint of bitterness or anger from Mike Lowell, a former World Series Most Valuable Player who now finds himself residing in a place called limbo. Lowell's situation is decidedly undecided, and he knows that and he's comfortable with that.
For Lowell is a realist who has a thorough understanding of himself and the game. He knows that as long as he proves his health, he can be a viable player for someone. He also knows that while anything can happen, that someone isn't likely to be the Red Sox.
The classy right-handed-hitting veteran opened his fifth Spring Training with the Red Sox prepared for all scenarios.
"I'm getting ready for a season," said Lowell. "I think I'm pretty intelligent in the sense that there's no real playing time for me here barring a major injury, and I'm not really in the business of hoping somebody gets hurt just so I can get at-bats. For me, I'm feeling like I'm more prepared and ready for a full season more than I was last year, so why shouldn't I play more than I did last year, whether it's here or somewhere else? I really can't control that."
During their winter evaluations, the Red Sox decided they needed to improve their range at third base, and that's why Lowell -- who lost some mobility from his right hip injury and subsequent surgery in 2008 -- got phased out of the team's plans for '10. Adrian Beltre, regarded as one of the elite defenders in the game, has come on board as a free agent to take Lowell's place.
Lowell spoke comfortably with Beltre on Tuesday and had no problem whatsoever with another veteran essentially coming to Boston to take his job.
"I mean, I know him as a baseball friend. I've never had meals with him," Lowell said. "But I think he has an opportunity to make $10 million. I don't really think he's worried about it. If I'm him, I don't [avoid signing] on a team because of the other guy, especially if the organization tells him, 'You're going to play.'
"I think he made it clear that [general manager] Theo [Epstein] told him that whether he signed or not, I was not going to play third. I think that makes it a little easier for him. I don't need to see him to know where my status was. I think the writing was on the wall, basically the first day of the Winter Meetings."
It was at the Winter Meetings when the Red Sox had essentially traded Lowell and a large portion of his $12 million salary to the Rangers for a catching prospect named Max Ramirez. But after weeks of deliberation, that deal fell apart when Texas determined through an MRI that Lowell needed right thumb surgery for an injury that occurred in the final week of the 2009 regular season.
"It's strange in the sense that I thought I was going to Texas -- yeah, that was a little different," said Lowell. "I think I've been in some rumors before, and I think when you're going on a plane going to Texas, it's a little closer than most times. I realize I really can't control that, so I really haven't sweated it that much. I was really concentrating on the health aspect.
|"[Mike Lowell's] been a terrific player and a terrific teammate and a terrific person."|
|-- Terry Francona|
In an ideal world, Lowell would have had thumb surgery immediately after the Red Sox were knocked out of the postseason and could have been fully recovered by the Winter Meetings. Why didn't Bosotn give him an MRI before the trade scenario popped up?
"That's a little bit of a grey area," said Lowell. "The timing of the surgery I don't think did anyone any favors. If they had the MRI and I had the surgery right after the season, by Thanksgiving, you're fine."
But Lowell didn't appear to be mad at the Red Sox. Perhaps the club and the player both downplayed an injury that didn't keep Lowell from starting all three games in the American League Division Series sweep to the Angels, only to find out later it was a little more serious than either side expected.
The Rangers eventually moved on from Lowell and signed Vladimir Guerrero. Lowell said he would have been fine with Texas as a landing spot.
"I looked at the Texas thing honestly, when I was on the plane flying to Texas [for the physical], as a pretty good challenge," said Lowell. "I thought that team did a lot of good things last year. They were in it basically until the end. It was more, the way at least I viewed it, is I would probably DH a lot and play first a lot, and if Michael Young needed a DH, I would probably play third for just a handful of games. So I didn't have a problem with that.
"I didn't see that as a bad situation. I thought that was a place where I could fit in the lineup there, and I thought I could put up some numbers on a team I thought was going to be competitive, so I wasn't ashamed of going over there. I wasn't disappointed that might be a possibility of where I landed. [When] it didn't go through, I was like, 'All right, it didn't go through.'"
Lowell remains a highly popular figure to Red Sox fans, who have expressed their sympathy to his plight in blog forums and talk shows, etc.
One thing Lowell wants to make clear is that nobody should feel sorry for him.
"I want to stress that I wasn't stressed," Lowell said. "I really wasn't. I think I get the grand scheme of things for me -- like what I value and what I don't. It's not that I don't value baseball, but I'm pretty confident I'm going to be in the big leagues this year somewhere and I still view that as a privilege to me. Like I said, no one needs to feel sorry for me for the situation of my life right now."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona will take the situation on a day-by-day basis.
|" I'm not really worried about my thumb much. The surgery went really well, the rehab has gone really well."|
|-- Mike Lowell|
Does Lowell regret not taking a superior four-year offer from the Philadelphia Phillies instead of the three-year pact he signed with the Sox following his brilliant 2007 season?
"No, no," said Lowell. "I might have signed with Philadelphia and gone on a spelunking trip and gotten hurt and that's against our contracts, so they might have voided the last three years. You never know. They have great caves in Philly so, no, I don't. I enjoyed Boston. At that point, I was delighted to sign back. We had a competitive team and came within one game of the World Series the next year. How could you say that was a bad decision?"
As for the thumb surgery, Lowell is mostly healed from that now and will take batting practice next week, which will be two months since his surgery. Then he can go about the business of showing 29 other teams that he is healthy and can still play baseball at a high level.
"I'm not really worried about my thumb much," said Lowell. "The surgery went really well, the rehab has gone really well. I've hit off a tee and I'm assuming within about a week I'm hitting batting practice, so I don't see that as a major problem. I think my hip is about 10 times stronger than it was last year. I think I was able to use the offseason to strengthen and get flexibility and range of motion and maintain it. I'm pretty optimistic."
Lowell knows there are no guarantees in baseball, so he didn't feel like making a prediction of whether he would line up on the first-base line with the other Red Sox players who get introduced on Opening Night -- April 4 - against the Yankees.
"I have no idea," said Lowell. "I really don't."
Lowell appreciates the support from Boston fans.
"I love the fans," Lowell said. "Part of my e-mails [from friends] are, 'Check out the comments on this article.' And I tell my wife to check it out, and she says, 'You know how many people are really on your side in all this?' I think they'll be more emotional if Adrian Beltre starts off slow, and they'll be much less emotional if Adrian Beltre starts off hot. That's kind of the way it goes.
"In '06, I can't imagine too many people were that excited about me playing third. And then as the season went on, it worked out great, we got a pitcher like [Josh] Beckett and a guy who can play third every day."
And now, with the possibility looming that Lowell is spending his final weeks in a Boston uniform, the only certainty is that he will exit with the same class he entered with.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.