When Nomar Garciaparra bounced up the steps of the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium early Thursday evening, there was a large contingent of Boston partisans waiting to greet him. In order to see the real Red Sox, the team's beleaguered fans have learned, it is necessary to arrive early. That's when residents of the most distinguished disabled list in baseball customarily perform.
Garciaparra, the American League batting champion the previous two years, received a rousing ovation as he jogged to the batting cage where he was joined by John Valentin, the oft-sidelined third baseman.
Later, Red Sox supporters would applaud at a glimpse of Pedro Martinez, the most dominant pitcher in the majors when healthy. They are the stars of the team's walking wounded which includes catcher Jason Varitek, centerfielder Carl Everett and pitchers Frank Castillo and Pete Schourek.
Little wonder that when someone asked General Manager Dan Duquette his greatest need as Boston prepared to start the second half of the 2001 season against the Mets, he replied succinctly, "Healthy players." That the team remains on the Yankees' heels in the American League East and continues to battle for a playoff berth in the face of so many injuries is a levitation act worthy of Doug Henning.
The question that has been posed since opening day, when Garciaparra underwent surgery on his right wrist, is how the Red Sox have managed to stay upright while forces conspire to bring them to their knees. "In terms of both pitchers and position players, whenever someone's gone down, there's been someone else to pick him up," David Cone said. "Our depth was underrated."
Cone is just one example of the depth charge that has powered the Bosox. Discarded by the Yankees after a season in which he ap peared to have squeezed every last ounce out of his resilient right arm and set back by tendinitis in spring training, he has won four of five decisions since joining the rotation in mid-May and his team is 7-0 in his last seven starts. He will attempt to extend that streak Friday night in his first start at Shea since Aug. 12, 1992, when he wore a Mets uniform.
Rather than an exception, he is the norm on the staff that has prospered without Martinez for the last two weeks and will have to do without him for another "four to six weeks," according to William J. Morgan, M.D. The Boston team physician said Thursday night that an MRI of the ace's shoulder showed no tear and that the pain he has felt "reflects overuse." He also said "it is realistic" to expect Martinez to return to his exceptional form before the end of the season.
"I can't push it," Martinez said after the defeat. "I'm not going to put my career at risk. But I know I'm going to work hard and get back as soon as possible. I feel a lot better after the rest. So far, it seems like I'm going to pitch. Are you praying?"
In his absence, the Red Sox have gotten maximum mileage out of Cone and fellow retreads Rolando Arrojo, who will start against the Mets tomorrow, Hideo Nomo and Tim Wakefield, the veteran knuckleball specialist who was summoned from the bullpen in May and who owns the second-best earned run average among AL starters despite taking the loss in the Mets' 4-2 victory Thursday night. Still, there is little doubt among the public what is required if Boston is to qualify for the postseason.
"Dan, we need another starting pitcher," one of the Bosox fans gathered around the dugout yelled to Duquette as he finished a pregame television interview.
"That's what I'm working on," the GM replied without missing a beat.
Encouraged by the exchange, the fan said, "You're the best, Dan. You crush (Yankees General Manager Brian) Cashman." At the very least, Duquette may be in line for Executive of the Year honors if the Red Sox succeed while Martinez sits in a dugout flipping baseballs into the air. The news on Garciaparra is a lot more encouraging. The shortstop has been taking batting and fielding practice since before the All-Star break and is awaiting word on the team's plans for a rehab assignment.
"He should be ready to go out in a short period of time," Duquette said. "He's been adding to his workload and tolerating the work. The next step for him is to bat against live pitching." Cameramen thought they were onto something last Sunday when Garciaparra stepped into the batter's box while Cone was throwing from the mound in a pregame workout at Fenway Park. They crowded around the pair, hoping to record a dramatic moment in the shortstop's comeback.
Alas, Garciaparra did not swing, choosing to reacquaint himself with the strike zone while providing the pitcher with a target.
Despite their sterling first half--and the solo homer by substitute shortstop Mike Lansing Thursday night--the Red Sox can't afford a setback to Garciaparra. They can't rely on Manny Ramirez and a brace of part-timers to carry them all the way to October.
"The best thing we can do to help our ballclub," Duquette said, "is have our players complete their rehab and return to the team. That would be more dynamic than any trade we can make."
That's why Red Sox executives and players alike, wherever they gather, spend an inordinate amount of time toasting each other's health.