FORT MYERS, Fla. — The golf playing on the enormous flat-screen. The tobacco entrenched in the bottom lip. And the bare feet propped up on a stool in front of him. It all screamed comfort.
It all isn’t just a façade. For Josh Beckett, the image is his reality.
“I have that settled feeling,” the Red Sox pitcher explained from his rented Fort Myers house. “You feel comfortable. You don’t really worry about all the exterior [stuff] anymore, and it allows you to go focus on what you’re trying to do.”
This is Beckett and will be Beckett. Don’t try to paint the picture of an anguished soul who is losing sleep over life after his current contract. That’s not him ... not now.
Getting his two-seamer to the spot he wants is a challenge. Beating the Yankees will be a challenge. But that “exterior [stuff]” — most of which begins and ends with whether or not Beckett will be with the Red Sox beyond the 2010 season — is not going to be a challenge.
He has worked too hard for it to be any other way.
Beckett has made it remarkably uncomplicated. He wakes up at the same time every day, keeps to a regimented schedule during his work hours, stays in what he calls his “cubicle” (“I’m really good at minding my own [expletive] business”), and never — that’s never — talks about what might await in terms of his next contract.
“I would say that I’m more prepared now than I was four years ago,” said the 29-year-old Beckett. “Yeah, I’ve had my down times, but if you look over the last four years, as far as being on winning teams, winning games, guys knowing that I’m giving everything I’ve got. … I don’t think you’re going to find anybody who has been in our clubhouse with me that doesn’t want me out there every fifth day whether I’m going good or I’m going bad. There’s going to be a certain standard for that day.
“I’m not saying I’m perfect, and I would say I’m more prepared for this part of my career than I’ve ever been, and a lot of that is just learning from mistakes and learning from success. I’m more prepared for this part of my career than I was the last four years. I believe that. Now I have to go out and execute that and see who else believes that.”
Beckett is not worried about what awaits because he is unwavering in his belief that he has put himself in the best possible position to function not only through ’10, but however long his next contract extends through.
For one of the most genuine (and introspective) players on the Red Sox, the art of executing the coming months will be anything but complicated. People will have their hypotheses and opinions regarding what the future is going to hold. Beckett will still have the reigns.
“That goes back to me worrying about things I can control. I can’t control what people say. I think there’s an amendment for that,” he said. “That being said, I can’t control that. The only thing I know how to do is just not listen to it. It goes back to me just sitting in my cubicle. I don’t ask questions I don’t want the answers to. I don’t mind sitting there. I like alone time. I like focusing on what I need to do in the next hour. I’ve been trying to do that in the last four years, but I’ve gotten better at it. I’m taking it just like that. I’m not going to worry about it.
“I’m not going to let this year being a free agent year dictate how I do every day, and not just how I do every day I pitch, but every day. I’m not going to work harder, I’m not going to work easier. I’m going to do the same things I do that make me successful, and everything else will take care of itself.”
NOT THE SAME PERSON
It’s a question that Beckett has a very easy answer for: “Do you look back at yourself 10 years ago and say, ‘Who was that?’ ”
“I don’t say, ‘Who was that?’ For me, and this is professional and personal life, I think you go through a lot of changes from 20 to 25, and then 25 to 27 you want different things. You learn different things about yourself,” he explained. “You kind of grow into your skin in those two years and start saying, ‘This is the kind of man I’m going to be.’
“You start accepting who you are or try and act like somebody else. Some people take that road and act like they think they should be, and then there’s people who say, ‘OK, this is who I am and this is what I got. I may not be the most handsome guy but this is what I’ve got.’ And then from 27 to 29 I’ve changed again, at least for me. You start wanting different things. You accomplish some things and say, ‘Somebody might be proud of me but I think I might be able to do something better.’”
While for some, finding the moment the proper path was discovered might be unrecognizable, that isn’t the case for Beckett. He explained that the road to where he finds himself right now started in a doctor’s office as a 20-year-old.
The incident not only drives him, but also allows for a cautionary tale he can pass on to staff-mates such as Clay Buchholz, who may have dealt with his crossroads when sent to the minors last season.
“Everybody has to go through their scares,” Beckett said. “I had to go through my scare with an injury. I’m sitting outside a doctor’s office and I can hear them on the phone about wanting to do surgery on my labrum. This was in 2000. I went to Dr. Andrews and he was like, ‘No, no, no. Back the bus up a little bit.’ Everybody goes through that. Buchholz had it in the form of a humility check. It’s different from mine, but the same. You realize, ‘Hey, I’m not untouchable. I can be fazed by things.’ And it bothered him that he got sent down, he pitched his ass off and got to the big leagues and now somebody is going to have to steal that spot from him. And he’s going to climb even more.
“Every time I do my shoulder program, I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be doing this [stuff].’ It gets tedious, especially right now where I’m doing it every other day. You’re doing that [stuff] every other day, you will be like, ‘I did this two days ago, I’m doing it again, let’s just skip it today.’ But you can’t let yourself get in that mode. It might suck while you’re doing it, but then you pull something out of the Rolodex and you start thinking, ‘I’ve been there. I would rather do this now, and not do that.’ ”
The wake-up call in that doctor’s office can’t be underemphasized.
When that next contract is determined, part of the equation factored into Beckett’s value is going to be his approach, work ethic and understanding of what it takes to be successful. The righty understands this in a way the kid who was being force-fed into the Marlins rotation almost a decade ago couldn’t comprehend.
“There’s a difference between knowing you belong and being complacent,” Beckett said. “You have to know you belong here. In the Red Sox organization you cannot get complacent. There’s too much talent. They have a lot of money they can go out and sign guys with. You can get away from it for a year, but after that they’re going to move on.
“This goes back to Buchhy’s deal. There’s a difference between being complacent and knowing you belong. That’s what happened. That’s why I got injured. I saw all these college guys doing these exercises and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need that.’ That’s complacency. I knew I belonged, but I got complacent. You can’t do that.”
THE MISPERCEPTIONS OF 2009
The comfort level that Beckett currently finds himself with started embedding itself in the Texan last year. That’s when the puzzle started finding its final pieces.
The way he looks at it, 2007 was simply a perfect storm of good fortune, when all of his pitches were finding their targets almost every time.
Then came 2008, when the ramifications of taking shortcuts was discovered after suffering a spring training back injury. The result, he said, was an elbow problem in August, followed by his oblique issue during the postseason.
But when it comes to ’09, he wants to make something perfectly clear: Other than a stiff neck and an illness, he was not hurt toward the end of the year. In fact, Beckett points out that he made it through the entire campaign without any major injuries.
“I was never hurt last year,” Beckett said. “I missed one start in September with a really bad crick in my neck where I couldn’t turn to my left. Everybody was talking about how I was injured and I tried to set that record straight that there were no injuries at all last year. I sucked for four or five starts in a row. Just brutal. There are some aches and pains that go into that, but it wasn’t physical, though. I came down with a little illness and just had zero energy. I just didn’t have that finish to my pitches. I couldn’t hump up when I needed to.
“I thought I pitched good until the seventh or eighth inning, whenever that was, and I gave up the double to Aybar. People were like, ' '08 and '09, they were the same, he ended up hurt.' No, they weren’t. There was nothing last year that even came close to the stuff I felt in ’08 at the end of the year.”
And not to be forgotten was the run Beckett went on from May 5 until the middle of August, where he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
“I don’t think I ever went through something like that,” he said. “Three or four months there, I’m not saying nobody can be better, but if you expect more out of somebody other than that … it’s very difficult to exceed expectations when they basically feel like you should throw a no-hitter every time.”
As far as Beckett is concerned, there is a reason he went through perhaps the best run of his career in ’09, and also why injuries didn’t play a major factor in him getting to a career-high 212-1/3 innings.
And, in his mind, there is a reason that success can be duplicated in the years to come.
“I think I’m stronger now,” he said. “I think I’m more prepared mentally for the things that lie ahead. As much as you hate it, I’ve been through some of the bad things, and you learn a hell of a lot more from that than the season I had in 2007 when I had every pitch going for me almost every start. You take something out of eight runs over six innings. Some of the best starts for me, as far as me being proud of myself, is when I go out and give up four in the first inning and then I get through eight. Yeah, the ERA is [bad]. Numbers at the end of the game, [bad]. First inning sucked. But, you know what, I kept my team in the game and we won. And you can win games like that with our team.”
ABOUT THE FUTURE
This is the first contract year for Beckett. He would have experienced one in ’07 if he didn’t choose to sign a three-year extension (with a team option) the year before.
He heard the whispers about how he could have made so much more if he just waited until ’07 to sign. But whispers aren’t important in Beckett’s world. As he notes, he lockers right next to the often-animated Jonathan Papelbon and hears “about one of every four things he says.”
So in the years since Beckett inked his last deal, neither the thoughts of added security nor what might have been ever entered his psyche. There were other things to worry about while building the foundation he finds himself with today.
“I really do just take care of myself,” Beckett said. “I’m set. I don’t have to worry about anything. My ranch will be paid off this year, and that’s always been a dream of mine. I have certain personal goals. My kids will be able to go to good colleges. Whatever lays ahead of me, I’m set. I didn’t really think about it in 2007. People say, ‘Well, you could make this amount of money.’ I’m like, ‘I could have lost a lot of money, too.’
“It’s a short window that we can do this, so why not be as great as we can? Nobody let anybody ever say, ‘Well, if he would have done this, he would have done this.’ I always look back at something my dad told me, which was, ‘Don’t let people make excuses for things not working out.’ If things don’t work out, make sure people go, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be.’ That’s been my whole philosophy, especially my years in Boston. I’m going to go out there and nobody is ever going to be like, ‘Josh just wasn’t trying today. He didn’t do anything yesterday, the day before, or the day before.’ You do everything you can to put yourself in the best possible position.
“Whether you want to or not, people see that and it makes your teammates really try hard, try very, very hard for you. That’s the part I think [Red Sox manager Terry Francona] really gets, because every meeting I’ve ever sat in with him he has always talked about being accountable for the guy to your left, and the guy sitting to his left. People see that, whether you want to or not. It’s not like you’re in there saying, ‘I have to make sure they walk through here.’ They see that, and we play hard for each other. They know when I’m out there that I’m giving everything I’ve got. I might not be able to get to that down-and-away fastball, but they know he’s trying.”
Beckett explains that one of his main goals is to retire on his own terms, something that seems a little closer now than it did when he was the brash fireballer wearing the teal and black of the Marlins.
He remembers the day Al Leiter went into Joe Torre’s office, told the Yankees manager he was retiring, and still went out and pitched a great spring training game later that day anyway. (“That’s pretty cool to me,” Beckett said.)
But, whenever that final game might be, Beckett is optimistic that the journey to get there from here on in will be a smoother ride than the one that got him to this point.
It’s a question the pitcher has a very easy answer for: “Do you think the next 10 years can be better than the last 10?”
No matter what kind of contract awaits, Beckett has the security of two things: confidence and comfort. And they don't appear to be going away any time soon.