At the end of a night when he clubbed the first big league pitch that he had seen in six weeks over the Green Monster for a two-run home run, it seemed obvious. It had worked out for the best for everyone that Mike Lowell had stayed in Boston.
The blast — which served as the key offensive play in the Sox' 3-1 win over the Indians (recap) — represented something that both sides wanted: for Lowell, the opportunity to play, and for the Red Sox, the opportunity to have the 36-year-old deliver something of value. The unpleasant circumstances that led to that outcome — a potentially season-ending injury to Kevin Youkilis — were briefly set aside in an electric moment that Sox manager Terry Francona described as an "only in Boston" phenomenon.
For much of the year, and certainly the past six weeks while Lowell languished on the DL, it appeared impossible to envision such a scenario in a season when Lowell and his team seemingly had little use for each other.
The Red Sox and the veteran infielder had struggled since last offseason to find a mutually satisfactory outcome to their estranged relationship. A trade seemed like the ideal scenario for both sides, offering the possibility of having Lowell land with a club on which he would have a meaningful role while also giving the Sox something in return for the 2007 World Series MVP. But the right deal, it became evident last winter, would be anything but straightforward to find.
"All along, the team was trying to find scenarios that were in the organization’s best interest and also fit what Mike was looking for," general manager Theo Epstein said. "That was hard to come by."
That was due in no small part to the concerns of other clubs about Lowell's surgically repaired right hip. During the offseason, the Rangers killed a deal with the Sox that would have sent Lowell (and $9 million of his $12 million salary for the 2010 season) to Texas in exchange for Max Ramirez. Lowell's hip (not, as suggested at the time, his thumb) was the culprit. Those concerns persisted during the regular season.
The Sox remained aggressive in shopping Lowell, ultimately remaining open to every trade scenario that was presented. Yes, that even included dealing the four-time All-Star to the Yankees just before the July 31 trade deadline. Indeed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, the Sox, Rangers and Yankees had nearly agreed upon a three-way deal that would have had Lowell going to New York, Jarrod Saltalamacchia heading to Boston and prospects going to the Rangers. In that scenario, the Sox would have paid all of Lowell's salary except for the major league minimum for the rest of the year.
The framework of that deal, according to multiple industry sources, was all but settled upon by the teams before the Yankees nixed it on the basis of Lowell's medicals on July 30. It was after that deal came apart that the Rangers and Sox forged their direct transaction that resulted in Saltalamacchia coming to Boston in exchange for Roman Mendez, Chris McGuiness, a player to be named and cash.
The Sox and another AL East rival, the Blue Jays, also engaged in talks, according to multiple sources. Toronto expressed interest in him in April and in June, with the two teams making progress toward a deal that, according to one of the sources, would have sent Lowell to the Blue Jays for a major leaguer and a minor leaguer. As in the Yankees scenario, the Sox would have paid all but the prorated big league minimum of Lowell's salary.
However, even though Lowell did not have no-trade protection from a deal to the Blue Jays, the sides backed out of talks when concerns were raised about the impact on Lowell's hip of playing regularly on Toronto's turf.
That the Sox would consider deals involving two divisional rivals — particularly the Yankees, a team with whom the Sox have not dealt since a 1997 trade of Mike Stanley to New York for Tony Armas Jr. and Jim Mecir — spoke to the lengths that they were willing to go in hopes of finding a solution to the Lowell situation that would offer a satisfactory outcome to both sides. With no other teams expressing interest in acquiring Lowell at the deadline, the Sox were willing to swallow hard in order to achieve what one source called the "least imperfect" outcome.
"I don’t think Mike made any secret that he wanted to be somewhere where he had a role. He didn’t feel like he had a role here. All season long, we’ve been aggressive trying to find a fit for him to be somewhere where he felt like he had a role," said Epstein, indirectly responding to a question about the team's willingness to trade a player to the Yankees. "As the deadline approached, there was one team that had that fit for him. It wouldn’t have been an easy thing to do, but given the fact that we would have gotten something back that we feel would have benefited us, and Mike would have gotten to an organization that had more of a role for him, we felt it was worth considering. So we had discussions about it. But it probably turned out for the best for everybody given that Youkilis went on the DL today."
Lowell greeted the idea that the Sox were willing to move him to the Yankees (a club from whom Lowell had no-trade protection) with deeply mixed emotions. On the one hand, it could have represented an opportunity for playing time. On the other hand, no scenario could do more to crystallize how marginal a figure he had become on the Sox than the team's willingness to deal him to its nemesis.
"It added to the roller coaster of emotions," Lowell said. "It’s very hard to swallow that the team you played for, and you feel you’re giving everything you’ve got, felt that they’d be better equipped for me not only not to be on it, but to be on the rival team? That’s hard. That’s part of the things you need to sort out mentally."
Once the deal that would have sent him to the Yankees fell apart, Lowell was destined to remain with the Sox beyond July 31. That led to the uncomfortable discussions between the player and team about how to proceed in recent days, while Lowell — despite having concluded his rehab assignment — remained inactive. The Sox, Lowell said, made clear to him that they were not going to release him, and so the two sides were in conversations about how to proceed with a relationship that had become painfully awkward.
Unexpectedly, however, a mutually agreeable resolution arrived, albeit in a form that neither Lowell nor the team wanted. With the rare thumb injury that will keep Youkilis on the sidelines for at least a couple of weeks and possibly the year, Lowell will be given the opportunity for fairly regular playing time.
That, in turn, led to his activation on Tuesday and the remarkable moment in the bottom of the second inning, when Lowell was greeted by a sustained ovation from the patrons of Fenway Park as he walked to the plate.
“I don’t know if they were clapping because they thought maybe I was gone or if they were happy to see me here,” Lowell said. “I’ve been pretty spoiled this year. I haven’t had too many at-bats but I’ve gotten nice ovations. But this one was definitely nicer than most. To come through in a nice way made it equally special.”
Lowell then ambushed the first pitch he saw, a 91 mph fastball from Indians starter David Huff, lining it over the Green Monster for his third home run of the season. The experience of rounding the bases amidst the roars of the crowd, and then being embraced by his teammates when he returned to the dugout, was described by Lowell as “one of the more special moments I’ve had in my career.”
It also provided a significant lift for his team on a night when the lineup had been stripped of its top hitter.
“I guess it’s safe to say,” mused Sox manager Terry Francona, “that was an immediate impact.”
Because of his hip, it is unclear how much Lowell will be able to play, but certainly, as his rehab assignment in Triple-A demonstrated, he can be a valued right-handed bat when in the lineup.
"We’ll see how much he can play. This gives him an opportunity to have a legitimate role on the team and we’re really happy to have someone like Mike to put in there, even though it’s under very unfortunate circumstances," Epstein said. "I don’t think anyone — not even Mike — can say how many days a week he can play."
Even so, that Lowell’s playing time will now be dictated by his health reflects a remarkable and unexpected development. In the coming weeks, and perhaps for the rest of the season, a player who once represented a linchpin of the lineup will have a renewed chance to become a significant contributor in Boston.
“There’s an unfortunate opportunity. Unfortunate that we lost a guy like Kevin Youkilis, but it’s an opportunity for me to fill that gap and still help this team win,” Lowell said. “I can’t pretend that I’m going to be Kevin Youkilis. He’s a different hitter than I am.
“But I feel that I can be a productive hitter. I welcome the challenge, just being a competitive baseball player. I’ve always said that I’d rather play than be on the bench, well this is my chance, so I’m looking forward to taking advantage of it.”