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Watch man Loretta hopes '06 is right time

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. -- In the beginning, it was called Rancho Zorro, named by the 1920s Hollywood actor who originally made the movie role famous. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his actress wife, Mary Pickford, planted groves of Valencia oranges here, but as the story goes, the couple divorced before they got around to building their dream house, and Fairbanks's second wife decided it was too countrified for her tastes.

Now, it is called Fairbanks Ranch, a gated enclave of elegant homes among the most exclusive in the United States, featured on ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." It lies in the foothills above Del Mar, the beautiful ocean resort just north of San Diego known for its racetrack (''where surf and turf meet").

It is but coincidence that Mark Loretta, the new Red Sox second baseman and fledgling horologist (more on that later), should live in a place named after an actor, just as it was not his intention to go to Northwestern University because it was a school that could boast an all-star alumni team of thespians, from classic stars like Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, and Ann-Margret to those of more recent vintage, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (''Seinfeld"), David Schwimmer (''Friends"), and Heather Headley (''Lion King").

Loretta, a Southern California kid who grew up in Arcadia, home to another notable racetrack, Santa Anita, went to Northwestern to play baseball, even though the roster of NU grads who have gone to the big leagues is considerably slimmer than the roster of stars that dazzled on the silver screen and Broadway stage. Former catcher and new Marlins manager Joe Girardi went to NU, and Sox fans might remember John Trautwein, a pitcher who made a cameo appearance on the '88 team. But the most famous NU grad with baseball connections is a commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the autocratic former federal judge who banned Shoeless Joe Jackson and his ''Black Sox" teammates after the 1919 scandal.

Why did Loretta leave the California sun to go to the Chicago-area university?

''My lifelong dream and goal was to play professional baseball," said Loretta, sitting in his poinsettia-bedecked living room on a recent afternoon, shortly after the painful experience of watching Northwestern lose to UCLA in the Sun Bowl with UCLA alumnus (and instant Sox legend) Dave Roberts, recipient of a steak dinner at a restaurant to be named, courtesy of a wager with his former Padre teammate.

''But I was realistic, too. I knew I wasn't a five-tool player, so I needed something to fall back on. That's where the academics came in."

Loretta, who was told by the schools closer to home, like UCLA and his parents' alma mater, Loyola-Marymount, that he might get a chance to start by his junior year, started all four years at NU, and was Big Ten MVP his senior year, when he hit .408.

While there, he met his future wife, Hilary, a Chicago-area native and competitive skier who went to New England College in Henniker, N.H. He also majored in business, or as the undergraduate program was known, ''organizational studies," and obtained his degree on time, and after the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him after his senior year in 1993, he was able to leverage his negotiating position with the Brewers by telling them that Kmart had offered him a spot in its executive training program.

''I told them, 'I got an offer from Kmart at 'X,' you've gotta at least match that," Loretta said with a smile. ''That probably got me an extra 500 bucks."

There was never any doubt which career track Loretta would follow. Two years later, he was in the big leagues, and now, after being traded last month by the Padres to the Red Sox for catcher Doug Mirabelli, he is joining a team whose publicist, Glenn Geffner, not only is another NU alum but has an older brother, Steve, who was Loretta's teammate at NU and succeeded him in the Wildcats' lineup.

Comparisons to Gwynn
Loretta thought he had a home in San Diego, especially after averaging .325, 37 doubles, 14 home runs, 91 runs, and 74 RBIs in his first two seasons in San Diego, 2003 and 2004. In '04, when Loretta hit a career-best .335 and became the first Padre other than Tony Gwynn to collect 200 hits in a season, Padres manager Bruce Bochy likened Loretta's consistency at the plate to the future Hall of Famer's. That might sound like eyewash, except Gwynn said he agreed.

That season, Loretta also became an All-Star for the first time, all the more reason for Theo Epstein, the once and future (?) Sox GM, to lament that he was unable to persuade Loretta to sign with the Sox when he became a free agent after the 2002 season. Epstein actually offered Loretta more money than the Padres did, but the Sox had just picked up Todd Walker and Loretta didn't want to risk becoming a utility player in Boston, even though in the course of his career he has played every infield position and left field, too.

But last season, Loretta tore the ligament in his left thumb, for the second time in his career, in another one of those ''car wreck" injuries, as he called it, that have plagued him in the latter half of his career. Car-wreck injuries are freak occurrences, as opposed to nagging hamstring pulls or groin strains. By that definition, Loretta has staged a one-man demolition derby.

In 2000, he fouled a ball off his left foot and fractured it, missing the next 10 weeks. There would be a double whammy in 2001: In spring training, he tore the ligament in his left thumb when he hooked the second base bag on a feet-first slide trying to break up a double play, was out a couple months, and came back to find his starting shortstop job had been taken by Jose Hernández. Playing second base on the final weekend of the season, Loretta was taken out by a sliding Juan Uribe and sustained a fractured left leg and a partially torn medial collateral ligament.

Sent to the Astros in a trading-deadline deal in '02, Loretta had a hot September for former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams (''one of my favorite people in baseball") but tore his hamstring the last weekend of the season, which is no way to go into free agency. Then, last May, Loretta tore the same ligament in his thumb, this time on a play so weird he pulls out a DVD to show a visitor.

''I hit a little nubber," Loretta said as he searched for the offending clip. ''John Smoltz was pitching. He fielded it kind of near the bag. He thought he was closer than he was, and he started rolling on the ground. He was doing these belly-flop rolls. I was trying to avoid him so I instinctively dove for the bag."

The picture doesn't tell the story. As Smoltz careens clumsily, Loretta goes headfirst into the bag, his left hand jamming the base. But no one seems to realize the damage done; Loretta remained in the game and only later discovered the ligament was torn, at the opposite end from the original tear.

That was May 18. Six days later he had surgery, and Loretta missed 53 games. When he came back, he bore little resemblance to the player who had led the Padres with a .495 slugging percentage in '04. The Padres already were wondering where the power had gone before the injury, as Loretta had no home runs and just five doubles before he got hurt, though the player figured he was fighting through one of his typical slow starts.

But he hit just .224 in July after his return, .240 in September, hit just three home runs the rest of the way, and finished with numbers (.280, 3 HRs, 38 RBIs) that represented a huge dropoff from his All-Star performance in '04.

''I missed two months," Loretta said, ''and when I got back, I never really got untracked. There's a timing element. You play three games in Triple A, then all of a sudden you're back, and I didn't get it going."

The book on Boston
The Padres have a hot-shot second base prospect, Josh Barfield, son of former major league outfielder Jesse Barfield. GM Kevin Towers also had to find the money to re-sign Trevor Hoffman, who meant as much to the Padres as Johnny Damon did to the Red Sox, only more. ''If Trevor left," Loretta said, ''that would have meant [the team] losing revenue."

Loretta is due $3 million in 2006. When the Padres traded him, he said Towers told him one reason for the deal was that he needed to free up cash to sign Hoffman. Towers wound up signing former Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn at a far smaller sum.

At 34 and in the last year of his contract, Loretta figured his time was running out in San Diego, and if there is one thing Loretta is keenly aware of, it's time. He's a watch collector, a.k.a. horologist, a hobby he took up with former Brewers teammate Jeromy Burnitz. Their special interest is automatic watches that track moon phases and such. He has 10 watches he considers real keepers, his favorite a Maurice Lacroix.

So now Loretta comes east.

Loretta was in Las Vegas, attending a union meeting (he's on the executive council), when he learned of the trade. ''I spotted Rick Sutcliffe, who's hard to miss," said Loretta of the hulking former pitcher, now a broadcaster, ''and he was with some Red Sox business people who used to be with the Padres, Mike Dee and Sam Kennedy. He's going, 'Meet your new second baseman.' "

A contact hitter ideally suited for the No. 2 hole in the lineup -- he practices by using machines hurtling tennis balls plateward at up to 150 miles an hour, learning to read the colored numbers on the ball as they speed by to help his pitch recognition -- Loretta is eager to prove he's fully recovered from his injuries. He has mixed emotions about leaving home -- he and Hilary, with their two toddlers, Frank and Lucy, may rent Mirabelli's house for the season -- but is schooled on what to expect in Boston.

An avid reader of nonfiction, Loretta figures he received at least 10 books about Boston and the Sox for Christmas.

One of his closest friends is a former Boston guy and Red Sox fan, Bill Deacon, his partner in a New England seafood restaurant in Arizona, Foster's Seafood in Scottsdale. ''If he's a typical fan," Loretta said, ''then I'm pretty sure I have an idea what it's like."

And one of the first people he called after the trade was Roberts.

''He said I had no idea what I was in for," Loretta said, ''with the passion of the fans and the feeling of how much it means to the people there. I'm excited about that, for sure."

Even if it means leaving the ranch behind, at least for the time being.

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