The Boston Globe from Boston, Massachusetts on March 1, 1999 · 44
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The Boston Globe from Boston, Massachusetts · 44

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Monday, March 1, 1999
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D2 THE BOSTON GLOBE MONDAY, MARCH 1, 1999 7 don't worry about money in baseball. I could flip burgers. I just want to come in and help a team win, and pitch ...I know what I can do.1 KIP GROSS Newcomer Gross proves a fighter He'll battle for spot on team after experience in Japan By Gordon Edes GLOBE STAFF FORT MYERS, Fla. - A man can take rejection only so many times. Then he hops in his truck, slides in an AC-DC tape and cranks up the volume, drives around for an hour, and decides to go to Japan to be a Ham Fighter. . At least that's the way it worked for Red Sox pitcher Kip Gross, who could have answered one more summons from the Los Angeles Dodgers five years ago but had had his fill of such indignities as this: Being called up to the big leagues to start the first game of a doubleheader, winning that game against El Presidente, Dennis Martinez, while collecting two hits, and then being handed a plane ticket back to the minors between games, before the sweat stains in his uniform had begun to dry. Oh, he was ready to give it one more shot. At least that's what he told Rick Dempsey, his manager in Albuquerque, who had taken the call from the brass back in LA and was waiting for Gross with yet another shuttle ticket. But then, as Gross tells it, he walked into the clubhouse and told Dempsey, "Dude, get somebody else. I'm going to Japan." Gross can't remember who went up in his place. "But that dude was out of the clubhouse in a heartbeat He thought I was . going to change my mind." There would be no going back. "Best decision I ever made in my life," he said. Mind you, Gross didn't just wing his way to Tokyo without adequate preparation. "The Tom Selleck movie, 'Mr. Baseball,' had just come out," said Gross, citing the Hollywood treatment of an American who went to Japan to play ball "Actually, Selleck had invited me to the preview, but I didn't get to go. But you want to know about Japanese baseball, that's it - yes, it is." Gross, a righthander, said he'd always had a hankering to go to Japan, especially when it became obvious the Dodgers would never give him more than the yo-yo treatment. But he figured he'd go just for two years, three years tops. Enough time to make a nice pile of cash, then return to the big leagues. Instead, he stayed for five years. Things happened. He won a bunch of games, including consecutive seasons in which he led the Japanese Pacific League with 16 and 17 wins. His wife, Jami, loved it What was there not to love? The club picked up the tab for a great apartment right in Tokyo, and the meal money was $320 a day, which will buy you plenty of whatever passes as the Japanese version of Denny's Grand Slam breakfast The Yakota US Air Force base was nearby, a little slice of home an hour outside . of Tokyo. "We went there all the time," he said. "It was like being back in the States. We had a blast over there." Kip and Jami also had a daughter born in Tokyo, Harley Alexis, whose name, Kip swears, has nothing to do with the chopper he keeps in his garage. Whatever. And perks? Hey, it isn't the same as the States - imagine, over in Japan a ballplayer had to polish his own shoes, carry his own bag, and is lucky if his uniform was washed every other day. But the team's sponsors couldn't shower Gross with enough gifts. "pice cookers, rice, Cokes, beer - the gifts ' i. . V 4 , - .. , J' . ' - GLOBE STAFF PHOTO BARRY CHIN were never-ending," he said. And, please, he .said, if you're going to say he played for the Ham Fighters, then you might as well say Derek Jeter plays for the York Yankees. "The name of the team is the Fighters," he' said. "It's owned by Nippon Ham. Did they give us free ham? Sure, but there's only so much ham you can eat." Then there was the night on the road that some belligerent passer-by apparently decided to inquire whether Gross was worthy of his team's name. His idea of posing the question was by wrapping his hands around the pitcher's neck. , "The dude was really trashed, and he pushed me," Gross said. "He said, 'Get out of my way.' I said, 'Cool.' Then he came back, grabbed my neck, and started choking me. I couldn't breathe, so I decked him." Chalk one up for the American' samurai? Not quite. "Unfortunately, there were 10 more guys right behind him," he said, "and they just kicked my butt. "I remember being up against a car trying to protect myself, when I felt a toe connect right here." Gross pointed to a spot in his rib cage. He found out later that he'd sustained a broken rib, but for some reason his interpreter never told the team's manager or trainer. "Just scared to, I guess," said Gross, who finally told an English-writing newspaper reporter what happened. If that had been Gross's only injury in Japan, he'd probably still be there. But in spring training last year, his arm suddenly went numb. He had a bone spur in his elbow that was impinging on the nerve. He had surgery to take out the spur and his first game back, he figured he'd throw three innings. The team, which was in a pennant race, asked him to throw six He went nine up, nine down the first three innings and put on his jacket. They asked him to go back but there. He returned to the mound, and gave up seven runs without retiring a batter. He didn't pitch badly the rest of the way, but when the season ended, Nippon Ham decided not to exercise the option year on his contract So at 34, Gross would have to earn his bacon elsewhere. Not that he has ever balked at working for a dollar. Back in Nebraska, where he grew up, he began working for his bricklayer dad at the age of 12, and was a hod carrier by 14, mixing mortar. "I don't mind work," he said. "This is fun." Why the Red Sox? Heck, he said, Dan Duquette has been after his agent, Barry Meister, to bring Gross back almost from the time he first went to Japan. "I just wanted somebody to be honest with me, what their plans for me were," said Gross, who signed a $350,000 deal with the Sox this winter. "I don't worry about money in baseball. I could flip burgers. I just want to come in and help a team win, and pitch, however they want to use me. I know what I can do." The way Gross sees it, he has a shot at the No. 5 job if Pat Rapp falters. If not, he could pitch out of the bullpen, where one job appears open. The one thing he won't do is go back to the minors. "That's not going to happen, not when I've got other options around the corner," said Gross, who could wind up back in Japan if things don't pan out here. Hey, it's not every gaijin (foreign) pitcher who can speak Japanese with the skill he does. In the meantime? "I'm in Disneyland, man," he said. Second baseman won't take part in rundowns today By Gordon Edes GLOBE STAFF FORT MYERS, Fla. - This morning, manager Jimy Williams plans to take the team through a drill of pickoff and rundown plays. That's a routine staple of spring training, except for last year, when second baseman Jeff Frye tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while attempting to tag Darren Bragg. Frye, who has been bothered by a strained muscle in his side, is taking ground balls, but Williams said he will not take part in today's rundown drills, as much as he'd like. "I would love to have him in there," he said, "but with his side, it's not going to do him any good to be out there." If Frye were healthy, Williams would have had no qualms about the player taking part. "It was one of the first things I talked to him about" he said. "I can't wait to do the pickoff and rundown plays, and see you out there doing them. "His answer? 'I can't wait either.' That's just the type of kid he is." Teed off? John Valentin showed off an old Mo Vaughn T-shirt that bore the inscription, "Going . . . Going . . . Vaughn" on the front. This T-shirt, however, had been altered. On the back, someone had etched the word, "Gone." Valentin said he may wear it under his game jersey . . . Yankees manager Joe Torre said in Tampa yesterday that Roger Clemens will pitch on Sat-urday, but not against the Red Sox. The Yankees have a split-squad game against the Royals that day, and Torre will send Clemens on the one-hour bus trip to Haines City, Fla., instead of keeping him in Tampa against the Sox. "I just want to stay away from the media circus more than anything," Torre told reporters. "That was the purpose for not pitching him against Toronto the first couple of days and I said I might as well do the same Saturday," he said . . . Jim Corsi, who had been bothered by back spasms, threw on the side yesterday and should be ready for his first session of batting practice tomorrow. Corsi also tried to pass himself off as "Billy from Brockton" when he called Dennis Eckersley on a WBZ Radio show Saturday night but the Eck picked up on the voice immediately. Cor-si's comment to the Eck? "Dennis, you shouldn't be doing radio. A good-looking guy like you should be on TV." Rapp sheet Newcomer Pat Rapp will pitch in Thursday's exhibition opener, along with Tim Wakefield. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan plans to match up the five starters in the Sox rotation - Pedro Martinez, Bret Saberhagen, Wakefield, Rapp, and Mark Portugal - with the five pitchers in what he calls the backup rotation: Juan Pena, for example, will pitch on the same day as Martinez and Jin Ho Cho on the same day as Saberhagen. Brian Barkley, Robert Ramsay, and Kip Gross are also in what Kerrigan calls the backup rotation . . . Gross underwent laser surgery on his eyes and said his vision is now 20-15. "It was 12 seconds on the right eye, 10 on the left," he said . . . This being photo day, Rapp was asked if he kept copies of his baseball cards. "The year I won 14, 1 had about 20 different cards. Last year, I had just one." Saberhagen BRYAN Continued from Page Dl have the same kind of control he had in 1994, when he walked a microscopic 13 men in 177V& innings. He wanted to be more than just a marginal major league pitcher. He wanted to be a great one. He said he would settle for nothing less. You listened to it you wrote it down, and you printed it. You didn't have to believe it. You wondered if he did himself. Now we know. It was a personal pep talk, nothing more. "I accomplished more than I ever thought I would," he says. "A year ago I had hopes, but I didn't know what would happen. I would have been very happy if someone had told me I'd have the kind of year I had." Saberhagen was 15-8 with a 3.96 ERA. He was very much his old self in the control department (100 strikeouts and 29 walks in 175 innings). He was a solid, dependable starter for a team that earned a wild-card berth. He was the Sporting News American League Comeback Player of the Year. He was treated like a fragile piece of pottery by manager Jimy Williams and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who conspired to limit his pitches and whoXlev- Smile, it's picture day i.ii) i.iiih.iiii.iliiiui mini ami imiwn.u .ji... , - ) - - - Sox maintenance man erly juggled their rotation as often as possible to give him an extra rest day, or even two, between starts. At times he was unhappy with what he felt was their overprotective ways. Now he'd like to say he is very grateful. "A lot of credit to my success last year goe3 to Jimy and Joe," Saberhagen says. "They didn't want to overuse me. There were times I wanted to pitch more, and I let them know. One day Joe sat me down and said, 'Hey, we're in this for the long haul. Never forget that' I had to admit that made sense." When you've been to the mountain-top, however, it is difficult to accept stopping at the three-quarter point. Saberhagen has not abandoned his dream of returning to his old killer status. He is very much Old School. He was bred to be a nine-inning pitcher. He was not bred on pitch counts. He will not rest until he is allowed to shake his catcher's hand at the end of a ballgame.. "I really didn't have any personal goals in terms of wins and so forth last year," he says, "but I can tell you I have a personal goal this year. I want to pitch a complete game." Kerrigan already has told him the plan is to allow him a dozen or so more pitches than the basic 1998 alldment of V j fir f I GLOBE STAFF PHOTOS BARRY CHIN The cameras caught Tom Gordon greeting Pedro Martinez (top) with a kiss, Donnie Sadler (with his ID card clenched in his teeth, left) working on his golf game, and shy pitcher Juan Pena using his glove to get a little privacy as the Red Sox took a break from workouts for the obligatory spring training photo shoot. f ; i ' ' i 100. "If I'm going well," he says, "that's at least one more inning. If things fall into place, that could lead to a complete game." "If that's his goal, it's a realistic one," concurs Kerrigan. "Last year he averaged approximately 84 pitches a game. He could throw a 102, 103, 104-pitch complete game." Watching Saberhagen up close and personal was a very interesting experience for the pitching coach. "I was reading Bill W'alsh's book this winter," Kerrigan says, "and in it he talks about the athletes who have what he calls 'functional intelligence,' giving Joe Montana and Steve Young as examples. Bret Saberhagen very definitely fits the description. Under times of stress, he knows exactly what to do and where to go. His use of available pitches in situations is analogous to a quarterback's ability to see alternate receivers." Beyond that, Kerrigan loves Saberhagen for his spirit "He is really an old-timer," he salutes. "He is dedicated to the game. He belongs back in the '50s and '60s." Saberhagen has different numbers in mind. He wants to be in the 100s. That's where the complete games lie

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