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Campers are on site

Daubach back in his comfort zone

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Theo Epstein was across the continent toiling for the San Diego Padres in 2001 when Brian Daubach and his running buddy, Trot Nixon, emerged as leaders of the original Red Sox dirt dogs, as then-Toronto reliever Paul Quantrill dubbed a gritty crew of overachievers.

By the winter of 2002, Epstein was phoning Daubach as the Sox general manager to tell the first baseman his days in Boston were over. Daubach received the call while he was Christmas shopping with his fiancee, whom he later married, and he was crushed.

So imagine Daubach's surprise when Epstein called him a year later -- less than eight weeks after the Yankees knocked the Sox out of the American League Championship Series -- and invited him back. Epstein was working nearly around the clock to complete a complicated deal with Keith Foulke and try to engineer a landmark trade of Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez when he paused to dial Daubach's number.

The Sox were looking for a lefthanded hitter they could sign to a minor league deal, and Foulke's agent, Dan Horwits, had recommended Daubach, another of his clients.

"I was kind of in shock," said Daubach, who in 2002 joined Ted Williams, Tony Conigliaro, Jim Rice, and Nomar Garciaparra as the only Sox players to hit at least 20 homers in each of their first four years with the team. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to come back."

Daubach hardly knew Epstein before the rookie GM ended Daubach's tenure with the Sox. But the two talked long enough to develop a mutual respect and recognize they could help each other. Before long, Daubach was ready to abandon a chance to play for the St. Louis Cardinals and return to Boston, where he was a fan favorite.

"The conversation with Theo was a big help," he said. "It was important that he welcomed me back, especially when he was so busy with the other situations."

Daubach's exile was difficult, at best, a long year with the White Sox in which he played sporadically and hit only .230 with six homers and 21 RBIs. In one of the most touching scenes of the season, he wept with torn emotions after he doubled off Tim Wakefield, his friend and fellow champion of the Jimmy Fund, to knock in the decisive run for the White Sox in a 3-1 victory in Chicago. Their wives watched together.

Epstein saw the game as well, though he never doubted Daubach's ability. The Sox had let Daubach go as a financial consideration after he earned $2.3 million in 2002. The White Sox paid him $450,000 last year, and Epstein landed him for about $500,000 this year, if he sticks with the big league club, as expected.

"He's a quality lefthanded bat," Epstein said. "He has put together real good at-bats, especially against righthanded pitchers."

Daubach, who turned 32 Feb. 11, has hit .270 with a .351 on-base percentage in his career against righthanders. Last year, he hit .234 with a .365 on-base percentage against righties, though Epstein has all but thrown out those numbers.

"I don't really look at last year at all as a true indicator of what he brings to the table offensively," Epstein said. "He's a much better hitter than that. He's got a real good chance to make the team."

In fact, Daubach is the only bona fide contender to replace Jeremy Giambi as the lone lefthanded bat off the bench. He is unlikely to unseat Kevin Millar or David Ortiz as regulars after they both amply replaced his production last year. But he plans to make the best case he can for himself, as he demonstrated by arriving in camp early, beating everyone but the pitchers and catchers, who were scheduled to report by last night.

"The moves they made last year worked out," Daubach said. "I wish I could have been here to be a part of it, but now I'm back, and hopefully I can help this team."

After spending nearly nine years in the minors before he burst from obscurity in 1999 to replace Mo Vaughn at first base for the Sox, Daubach is accustomed to proving himself in spring training.

"With the numbers these guys put up last year, they don't need a whole lot of help, but maybe some days when there's a tough righthanded pitcher, I can help out," he said. "I just want to come in and earn my spot. I feel like I can still get the job done."

Never mind that Daubach had a hard time finding anyone to throw batting practice for him yesterday during a meeting of the uniformed and front-office baseball operations staff. He was home again at his locker near Nixon's, anxious for his pal to arrive and renew their daily NASCAR discussions.

"The comfort level is a whole lot different here," he said. "It's good to be back."

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