Brian Daubach is a square-bodied slugger from the Midwest who blasted Class AAA International League pitching last year until he gained a reputation as the latest long-ball god of the minors. Playing for Charlotte, the left-handed hitter led the league with 35 home runs, 124 runs batted in and 45 doubles. He hit .316. The parent Florida Marlins promoted him at the end of the season, took a glance and, woeful as the Marlins are, cut him. "I had the best season of my life," said Daubach, woe in his voice, "and I get released for the first time in my life."
Daubach was told he was too old. He would be 27 this season. The Marlins saw their future in 22-year-olds. Sadly, Daubach took his albatross of a credential as a seven-year minor league free agent to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball. There, he came under the management of Dave Jauss, a coach with the Boston Red Sox. Jauss suspected Daubach could help the Red Sox. Next thing, Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette called Daubach. It's rare for a big league boss even to expend his breath on a seven-year minor league free agent.
"We had not been able to sign Mo Vaughn," Duquette said the other day.
So he called Brian Daubach to succeed the Anaheim-bound slugger of renown? How could it be?
But then again Duquette also talked the Seattle Mariners into taking ineffective reliever Heathcliff Slocumb for two bright minor league prospects: Jason Varitek, now Boston's starting catcher, and blossoming middle reliever Derek Lowe.
Throw in a rookie right fielder with the unlikely name of Trot Nixon and there you have it, the humble supporting cast for Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and a franchise that previously staked virtually all its hopes on glittery stars. The Red Sox are down, two games to none, to the New York Yankees in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, which resumes this afternoon at Fenway Park, but at least they're playing. In fact, they have enough players with talent but so little major league experience that they think they still have a chance to win the series.
The salaries of Nixon ($200,000), Daubach ($230,000), Varitek ($237,500) and Lowe ($245,000) make them Boston's million-dollar babies, combined. All are between the ages of 25 and 27. All stand about 6 feet and weigh 200 pounds, except for Lowe, who is 6-6, and Varitek, who weighs 230. "They've all taken advantage of opportunities," said Grady Little, the Red Sox bench coach.
Daubach never had seen Fenway Park until April, when he walked out of the tunnel from Boston's clubhouse for the home opener. This season, he batted .294 with 21 homers and 73 RBI in 110 games. Nixon hit .270 with 15 home runs, 22 doubles and 52 RBI in 124 games. Lowe had a 6-3 record and 2.63 earned run average in 74 appearances, almost half the games. Not even the starting catcher at the beginning of the season, Varitek is a talent who had virtually disappeared for a time.
Varitek grew up near Orlando and was a three-time all-American at Georgia Tech. He played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1992. But he refused to sign with the Minnesota Twins in 1993 after they drafted him in his junior year. He missed still another year of pro ball by holding out again after Seattle drafted him in 1994; it's generally believed that his time away from the game delayed his development. He's a switch-hitting catcher with power and good defensive skills, including the ability to throw out base runners. He batted .269 with 20 homers, 76 RBI and 39 doubles while catching 144 regular season games--proving to be an ironman, but only after regular catcher Scott Hatteberg was injured early.
"We've got a lot of different guys on this team who throw a lot of different pitches, and they're not easy to catch," said Joe Kerrigan, the lanky Red Sox pitching coach. "He catches Tim Wakefield's knuckleball, Pedro [Martinez] throwing 96, 97 miles an hour. Then you've got Lowe, with the outrageous sinkerball. Varitek's an all-star catcher; he'll be an all-star catcher next year."
"I'm not the player I want to be yet," Varitek said in the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium. "I have lots to improve on. Consistency swinging the bat. I think my game-calling will continue to get better, my receiving, my throwing. One guy I admire is [Cleveland catcher] Sandy Alomar. He goes to play every day. He leads the ballclub. You have to be a leader back there [behind the plate]. That's the most important thing you've got to do."
Daubach arrived in Boston by a route that prompted him always to travel lightly: Port Lucie, Fla.; Kingsport, Tenn.; Pittsfield, Mass.; Columbia, S.C.; Port St. Lucie again; Binghamton, N.Y.; Norfolk; Binghamton again; and two years in Charlotte. A patient fellow from Belleville, Ill., he nevertheless wondered occasionally where the road would lead.
"All winter I had planned on going to Japan," said the designated hitter-first baseman-outfielder. "But the Red Sox said they would give me some at-bats in spring training. That's all I ever wanted. But in spring training and the first half of the season, to tell you the truth, I really took it one day at a time because I didn't know if I was going to be here the next day or not."
Trot Nixon, who bats and throws left-handed, felt only slightly more hopeful than Daubach did, even though Nixon had been a first-round draft pick of the Red Sox. His full name is Christopher Trotman Nixon, known as Trot for a maternal great-uncle. He had been a high school star in Wilmington, N.C. The Red Sox treated him nicely, saving him uniform No. 7 as he'd asked. "I'm a Mickey Mantle fan," he said.
He liked Mantle because of "the way he went about playing the game." Nixon dived head-first into a small side wall at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the ALCS in a futile effort to prevent a triple by Scott Brosius. Even Yankee partisans stood to applaud Nixon's effort.
"It's been a crazy season," said Nixon, who resembles the clubhouse boy. "I started off so slow"--he reached a .100 batting average on April 28 and .200 on May 12. "Guys play like that, you see them go back down to the minor leagues. But I went out and played hard, the best defense I could. After the all-star break, some cheap hits started falling, some of those hard-hit balls were falling also. My batting average started to rise and I got my confidence back." In July at Tiger Stadium, he hit three home runs in one game.
Lowe is a tall, blond, happy guy. Beneath Yankee Stadium's stands he wore his cap backward. He learned to throw his sinker in 1994 in AA ball at Jacksonville. Last season, he sampled big league pressure, relieving in one postseason game. All of 1998 he learned things. This August he experienced a surge of confidence, almost an epiphany.
"I used to try to pitch to the hitters' weaknesses instead of always pitching to my strength," he said. "I gotta go with my strength--the sinker. Batters have to show me they can do something with it before I'll change."
Lowe is a jittery guy on the mound, a right-hander with quirky motions normally associated with southpaws. "It's an exciting time when you go out there, but I've learned not to get caught up in the emotion although it looks like I am," he said. "I tell myself I have to get this sinker down, or this curve away. No way two years ago was I able to do that."
The Red Sox, a team believed at the start of the season to be in transition, proved to be something more. They have their stars, as usual, but they have other players who grew up all at once, including the unlikely quartet of a battery from Seattle, a minor league nomad and a rookie named Trotman.
CAPTION: After seven years in minors, Brian Daubach was flying high after hitting three-run homer against Cleveland Indians in first-round playoff series.
CAPTION: Jason Varitek, right, caught 144 games this season even though he began the season as a reserve. He became the starter after Scott Hatteberg was hurt.