FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mike Lowell isn’t blind to what awaits.
He knows that his current lot in life promises to be one of spring training’s most talked-about issues. The third baseman also realizes why such interest might run rampant the minute he steps into the Red Sox’ minor league training facility Monday.
“It’s pretty clear,” Lowell said by phone from his Miami-area home. “I think a monkey could understand the situation.”
That, however, doesn’t make any of it any easier.
Lowell isn’t a starter, having been almost traded to Texas before having to watch the Red Sox sign Adrian Beltre to be their everyday third baseman. He doesn’t know how his surgically repaired thumb is going to bounce back, while the much-talked about right hip that has hampered him for more than 1½ years still remains a work in progress. And to top it all off, the 35-year-old doesn’t know what uniform he will be wearing on Opening Day.
This is all why Lowell is intent on making the coming weeks about one singular focus — get ready to play baseball in the 2010 season, no matter where it might be.
“I don’t view this as a major challenge,” Lowell explained. “If I’m healthy and teams out there think I can play every day, there’s going to be a team that wants me to play. If that’s beneficial to the Red Sox, I don’t think any of this is contingent on whether it’s beneficial to me. It doesn’t matter. I have no say. But if it’s beneficial to the Red Sox, then yeah, they’d make the move. And then you’d go wherever they send you. That’s the thing. I can’t say, ‘Hey, I want to leave,’ or, ‘Hey, I want to stay.’
“It doesn’t matter what I think or say. The only time I had that decision was after the World Series when I was a free agent. That’s the only time that I had the say. After that, you’re a product of the industry. I’m not sour about that. I’m cool with it. If you told me that I’d get traded and then they’d take away my contract, then I might have a much bigger issue with the way things are going.”
Of all the questions revolving around Lowell this spring — from how quickly his thumb can heal, to how much more mobility he might have, to how he will go about his business without a spot in the lineup — the one most want answered is something that might be the toughest to decipher.
Figuring out if there is any way Lowell could possibly be a member of the Red Sox come Opening Day remains a mystery. The player’s take?
“Oh, yeah. I think there’s a way,” Lowell said. “What I want and what will happen, I don’t know that’s something that’s attainable. But anything can happen. Guys get hurt all the time. But I don’t really want my playing time based upon whether someone gets hurt. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, man — I hope this guy gets hurt so I can get my at-bats.’ That’s not really the way I want to go. I’m just happy that I’m healthier than I was going into last year. I’m happy about that. I think there were a million question marks last year. I think there’s much less this year. But yeah, is there a chance? Sure. I have no control over whether they trade me. They have all the control over whether they trade me or not. But is there a chance? Sure. I just don’t know in what capacity. Only time will tell.”
Lately, time has only complicated things.
The reasons for any drama surrounding Lowell just kept piling up as the offseason progressed. After a campaign in which he fought off season-long hip problems, along with an end-of-the-season thumb injury, to finish with 17 homers and a .290 batting average in 119 games, the real curveballs started coming.
After injuring his right thumb on a foul ball against Cleveland’s Jeremy Sowers in the Red Sox’ final regular-season series, Lowell found himself saddled with a discomfort that wouldn’t go away.
He initially was diagnosed with a strained thumb, and then, at the end of November, was put in a splint before ultimately getting an MRI on the first day of baseball's Winter Meetings. Those tests, along with an examination by hand specialist Dr. Donald Sheridan in Arizona, determined that he had a torn radial collateral ligament and would require surgery.
Not only had the determination pushed back his recovery period to the point where missing some spring training time was inevitable, but it also blew up a trade in which Lowell would head to Texas (along with $9 million) for minor league catcher Max Ramirez, with Lowell becoming the Rangers’ first baseman and designated hitter.
“In about a week or so I hope to be swinging with contact, but I haven’t had any setbacks in that sense and my grip strength is getting stronger. I’ve been pretty encouraged under the circumstances,” Lowell said. “The timing of the date of the surgery wasn’t ideal, so I think that pushed me back to get my baseball stuff going, but I’m going to have to do deal with it.
“I started [throwing] about a week ago based on the time-frame the doctor told me, and that has actually come along pretty good. It just gets a little tired, but I’m not worried at all about the throwing. The main thing is if it is going to be able to handle when it hits the bat, and not so much where you hit the ball well, but I want to avoid any problems that time when you get jammed or it’s cold when you really feel that sting. I want to be able to handle that with both hands and don’t want that to be an issue. So I’m just going to follow the game plan of what the hand specialist gave me because that really only puts me seven days behind, which is really not the end of the world.
“I’ve been doing dry swings. It gets better each day. Each day is better. I know that every two or three days there’s a big jump in terms of grip strength and range of motion. One day I can’t do something, but two days later I can do what I couldn’t do and beyond with some strength. If you compare my thumbs right now there’s still some swelling in that area, so as each day goes by the swelling gets flushed out and opens up my range of motion.”
The good news in regards to how Lowell’s hip and mobility has progressed with a full offseason of strengthening?
“I’m 10 times stronger than what I was playing-wise last year,” he said. “I feel like the strength is where I want it to be. The range of motion is where I want it to be. The impact of running is what caused the discomfort before, and although it’s much less, there is still a little bit there, but they told me it would be there.
“On all those fronts it’s good, but I’m trying to get to a point where I was two years ago and I’m not sure that’s physically possible. Now, does that mean I can’t run? I can run and it definitely won’t be as noticeable as last year. Slow and really slow is not really a major problem.”
The bad? While not unexpected, the fact is that some semblance of the injury still will be prevalent, even as his ability to move improves.
“I think it will go away in about 15 years when I get a hip replacement,” Lowell said. “There’s literally a bone-on-bone condition there because the cartilage has been eaten away. There’s no way of putting more cartilage in it.
“The way it was explained to me was that that small grind was when my hips were formed, which was when I was about 12 years old. So this is a 20-year process and I think it’s hard to pinpoint for every day you had pain you kept playing and that will take ‘X’ days to get better. I don’t know how you can quantify that. All I know, I was in a lot of pain and discomfort before the surgery and now it’s much less but there’s still an issue there. There’s still bone-on-bone grind that I don’t think you can take away.”
THE TRADE AND BELTRE
Lowell had come to grips with the reality that he was going to be a member of the Texas Rangers, most likely playing a position in first base he only had manned four times in his professional career. (As a quick aside, Lowell is open to the idea of spending time at first this spring training, a scenario Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein brought up Monday.)
But then it blew up because of the thumb injury, leaving Lowell still with the Red Sox while immediately wondering what spring training might be like.
“Yeah, I think that’s only normal,” he said. “But I don’t think they had made a deal for Beltre or anything like that at the time, but I knew that they were looking in that direction. It was pretty obvious. In that sense, it was already mapped out whether that trade went through or not.
“I saw the Texas trade as something that, they were probably looking at me DH-ing a lot and playing a lot of first. I would take that as a new challenge as well. I didn’t have a say whether I wanted to do the trade or not, so I was trying to look at it in a positive light. It was a new challenge, playing a new position, being in a hitter’s park. I was looking at it in a good way. That was a team that was battling until the end. It looks like they’re making good strides. I didn’t see that as the end of the world.”
Then, a few weeks after undergoing surgery on his thumb, Lowell was told his starting spot had officially been commandeered thanks to the signing of Beltre. But, according to the infielder, that would not be classified as one of his offseason surprises.
“No. I would say no,” Lowell said when asked if the Beltre deal changed his outlook. “If it wasn’t Beltre, it was going to be somebody else. That was going to happen no matter what. That was just a timing thing. It might have been the next day [after the Texas trade fell apart]. It might have been a month. But it was going to happen. I was ready and basically prepared for that.”
THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE
Lowell knows now, as he finishes his final round of workouts with trainer Ron Yaboub, that the first order of business is to get his thumb completely healthy, and then start reminding people of his worth on the baseball field.
It is the thought of being in and around his teammates again, while getting back to the point where he is freely swinging a bat and throwing a ball, is what allows Lowell to answer the question, “Are you looking forward to spring training?” with, “Absolutely.”
“I’m looking forward to getting ready for a season,” Lowell said. “I understand that there’s a little bit of a gray area in what’s going to happen in my situation. But that doesn’t take away my excitement. I enjoy playing baseball. That’s what I like to do. Yeah, there’s still excitement. I still have the itch and want to get on the field, and most of all I like hanging out with the guys I go to the field with. There’s a lot for me to look forward to. I’m going into this with a good attitude and being upbeat. We’ll see where all of this takes me.
“At-bats are easy to get in the spring. It’s easy to prepare yourself in the spring. It’s a whole other thing once the season starts. That’s why I’m not going to worry about it until the season starts. I’m going to prepare myself as if I’m going to be someone who’s ready to play every day in the big leagues. That hasn’t changed in 14 years, which is great.”