The veteran third baseman defined the word “professional” in his four seasons in a Red Sox uniform, and for his efforts, it appears as though he’s being given a one-way ticket to Texas.
Of course, you can only feel so bad for a man that will make $12 million to play a game next year, but the case of Mike Lowell is one that involves much more than money.
It began in Boston with the description that any player would love to have bestowed upon him: “throw-in.” That’s all Lowell was supposed to be, a $9 million problem for two years, then he’d go away. Coming off his worst career season, that tag wasn’t entirely unfair. So when he was included in the deal that sent Hanley Ramirez to Florida and Josh Beckett to Boston, expectations couldn’t have been lower.
It didn’t take long for Lowell to shatter those expectations, hitting .318 with 11 doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs in April of 2006. By the end of May — when he was hitting .317 with seven homers, 23 doubles and 29 RBIs — it was safe to say that he was outperforming Beckett, who, despite a 7-2 record, was struggling with a 4.46 ERA and 14 home runs allowed in 11 starts.
For the Red Sox, the production at third base was a bonus. The year before, Bill Mueller hit just 10 home runs and drove in 62 runs. Lowell finished 2006 with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs in 153 games, all while posting a .987 fielding percentage.
Lowell’s ability to be a productive player gave the Red Sox enough comfort to head into 2007 without seeking a replacement, and Lowell bettered his numbers across the board: .324 average, 21 home runs, 120 RBIs. He helped carry the Red Sox through the World Series, driving in 15 runs in 14 postseason games on his way to winning World Series MVP.
His reward? Lengthy and uncomfortable contract negotiations that would last the better part of a month. Lowell wanted four years. The Red Sox were hardly willing to offer a third. Eventually, the two sides settled on a three-year, $37.5 million deal.
Lowell reportedly turned down a better offer from the Phillies (four years, $50 million), opting to stay in the city that embraced him after just two years.
“How cool is that?” wrote Curt Schilling on his blog. “Leaving years and dollars on the table to come back [to Boston] for three more years, good stuff. Pretty nice to think you are fans in a town that is now a desired destination for athletes across the major sports.”
Good for the fans, no doubt, but for Lowell, the process had to leave him feeling at least a little stung. He — and just about everyone who had walked through the turnstiles on Yawkey Way — felt like he’d done as well as anyone possibly could have, and he wanted to be compensated fairly. The Red Sox obliged begrudgingly, likely leaving Lowell wondering why.
Dealing with rejection (or at least a lack of complete acceptance) wasn’t a foreign concept for Lowell. He was given no playing time at his first high school. Neither was Alex Rodriguez, for that matter. That one can be chalked up to some superb coaching, no doubt. Then Lowell transferred and excelled at a new school, beginning a trend that he would continue through his professional career.
At the age of 24, as soon as he got his chance to play for the Yankees, the Bombers shipped him to Florida for a package of Todd Noel, Mark Johnson and Ed Yarnall — not exactly a Hall of Fame package. Lowell persevered and thrived in Florida, where he won a World Series ring, captured Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and was voted an All-Star three times. His 2005 was without question a down year, yet he responded in a big way after being labeled as a “throw-in” all winter.
In an injury-plagued 2008 season, Lowell endeared himself to the New England region for playing through obvious pain. He wasn’t making the plays which he had made look so routine in his career, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Lowell’s value was proven by his absence in the postseason, as the Red Sox scored just four runs per game in the ALCS against the Rays. There’s little question that having Lowell’s bat in the lineup over that of Mark Kotsay would have made the difference in that series.
By the end of 2008, Lowell was the second-most productive third baseman in the American League from 2006-08 with 273 RBIs, trailing only his former high school castoff Rodriguez. Lowell was first in doubles with 111, and second in batting average (.297).
Then came 2009, where Lowell never had the chance to get himself right after undergoing hip surgery. He never took himself out of the lineup, something that may have hurt him in the long run.
“I’m a little frustrated that I think things were going so good for these first 60 games, and then I just woke up one morning, I felt really tight,” Lowell told The Boston Globe in late June. “I played through it, and it really hasn’t gone away.”
At that point, Lowell was optimistic that the pain would disappear. Unfortunately for him, it did not, and it eventually sunk his season.
It’s not overly unrealistic to believe that given the benefit of five full months of rest before spring training, Lowell’s hip pains could be much less severe in 2010. The Red Sox, however, feel otherwise.
Now, it appears to be just a matter of time before Lowell is once again shipped out of town, told “thank you” and sent along his way.
Baseball is a professional sport dictated by business, and right now, the Red Sox feel that it’s better business to pay $9 million for Lowell to play for another team. In the long-term plans, it could work out for both parties, but as for the present, it just doesn’t seem right.
For the fans at Fenway, that will mean the hunt for a new corner infielder is under way in earnest.For Lowell, it’s time to do what he’s been forced to do too many times before — move on.