Esasky Can Afford to Be Choosy : Boston First Baseman Suddenly Becomes Center of Attention

The Hartford Courant

During the first 4 1/2 months he was with the Boston Red Sox, Nick Esasky fielded as many questions about Pete Rose as he fielded grounders down the first-base line.

"Nick, with Pete Rose being in so much trouble, how do you feel about

Esasky is a former Cincinnati Red, and, more than that, he is a former Cincinnati Red who gained a certain notoriety last summer as the prime occupant of Rose's managerial doghouse.

Now it was 1989, and Rose was in all kinds of trouble. Major League Baseball was well into its investigation of Rose's gambling activities, and it seemed only natural for the media to chase Esasky, Rose's one-time verbal punching bag, and get a quote for the morning paper or a sound byte for the 11 o'clock news.

"Nick, do you get any special satisfaction now that Pete ... "

The Pete Rose issue has been settled. Now Nick Esasky shows up at the park each day and finds a new question waiting for him. Esasky has the right to file for free agency when this season ends, and inquiring minds want to know where he will be playing for pay next season.

Or, as Esasky puts it, "Not a day goes by when somebody doesn't come up and ask me if I think I'll be with the Red Sox next year. I've kind of gotten used to it."

Esasky doesn't know where he'll be next season. Or, if he does know, he isn't saying. Esasky cleverly fends off every question about his expected charge toward free agency and shrugs when reminded of the ongoing speculation that the Marietta, Ga., resident will sign with the Atlanta Braves. Still, Esasky admits, "If you ask me if I can guarantee I'll be with the Red Sox next season, well, no, I can't guarantee that right now, to be truthful."

Esasky represents one half of one of the great ripoff trades of the '80s; he came to the Red Sox from Cincinnati with left-handed relief pitcher Rob Murphy for right-hander Jeff Sellers and first baseman Todd Benzinger. The Red Sox are understandably fearful of losing Esasky.

Murphy was to have been the key to the trade and, in fact, he has proved to be one of the best left-handed relievers in the American League. But Esasky has chosen 1989, his first season with the Red Sox, to submit his finest numbers as a big-leaguer.

More than being a boost to Boston's offense and providing a measure of consistency at first base, which is all the Red Sox expected, Esasky has emerged as a serious candidate for American League MVP honors. Going into Tuesday's game against the Oakland Athletics, Esasky was second in the American League in RBI with 97, and his 26 home runs lead the Red Sox. Esasky never has been one to hit for a high average, but his .271 mark this season is 26 points higher than his average in six seasons with the Reds.

Defense? "Absolutely outstanding," Red Sox Manager Joe Morgan said. "I knew he was good, but I didn't know he'd be this good. He's been making the big plays at first base all season."

A peek at the Red Sox's roster shows how important he has become to the team. Jim Rice probably has played his last season with the Red Sox, Dwight Evans is approaching his 38th birthday and is hobbled by injuries, and Rich Gedman, once an offensive force, is nearing the end of his third consecutive disastrous season.

And, because the Red Sox recognize the importance of obtaining a frontline pitcher during their off-season shopping excursions, it is likely that a big-name offensive player -- Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks or Wade Boggs -- will be traded for an arm or two.

Which brings us back to Esasky.

"We need him," said Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman, who engineered the trade with the Reds last winter. "We need him, and we're going to make every attempt to sign him up for the next two years. He knows it, and he knows we're willing to sit down and talk."

Esasky does know it. But Gorman now knows Esasky isn't ready to talk turkey yet. In his own way, Esasky has waved off all requests by Gorman to hold discussions for a new contract, and this may be the best evidence that the first baseman plans to explore free agency.

"This will be the first time in my entire career that I can decide what my future is going to be," Esasky said. "That's something I've waited a long time for. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm going anywhere. It just means I want to keep my options open. But I can honestly say I haven't made any decisions yet."

Esasky is hardly a wild and crazy guy. On a team where off-the-field activity has become a hot topic in recent years, Esasky is a quiet man who, after nearly a full season in Boston, still hasn't hit the Hub's nightspots. He and his wife, Vicki, rented a house in the Boston suburb of Sudbury. Esasky says he spends most of his spare time lounging around the pool with his wife and three children.

Said Murphy, "Don't look for any sleaze where Nick's concerned, because there is no sleaze. He's just a good guy."

Which leads to an interesting point, because it often has been suggested that another "good guy" was chased out of Boston when left-hander Bruce Hurst signed with the San Diego Padres last winter. But Esasky seeks to put such talk aside, and he insists he is comfortable with the Red Sox.

"There's been no problem there," he said. "I don't let things outside of baseball bother me. Nothing anyone does on this team could ever effect my decision to stay or leave. If I don't want to do something, I just go my own way."

By all accounts, Esasky has been a happy man this season. Murphy said, "This is the most comfortable I've seen him." And Esasky himself said, "Things have gone well, no doubt about that."

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