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Suddenly, Kapler really tattooing the ball

SEATTLE -- The new tattoo is on Gabe Kapler's giant, muscular left calf. It's a view of the San Fernando Valley coming up the 405 from Los Angeles. It's got buildings and mountains bathed in bright sunshine. It's the peaceful, optimistic calf, and it's still healing because he had the tattoo done during the All-Star break.

The old tattoo is on Kapler's giant, muscular right calf and it's got dark clouds, lightning, and rain. Very ominous. It symbolizes the struggles one goes through during a baseball season. Kapler knows what it's like to struggle. He might have the best body in baseball, but he's a 28-year-old career .272 hitter who hasn't been an every-day player in three years.

Kapler was back in the starting lineup last night, playing right field, batting eighth, and picking up a single in five trips in Boston's jarring 8-4 loss in Seattle. He had a nice weekend against the Angels, hitting two homers, making some great throws, and helping save Friday night's win with a shoetop catch of a Jeff DaVanon line drive to start the ninth.

"He impacted our two wins there," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He has such an interest in doing the right thing. Gabe's the kind of guy that when he plays, whether he hits or not, he's going to try to do everything in his power to help the team win. You root for him to get hits because he does everything else. And when he makes a mistake, he comes to you. There was one time this year when he was devastated that he might have thrown to the wrong base."

Teammate Kevin Millar, a fellow Californian, said, "When I played against him I thought he was kind of a pretty boy, but then when he's your teammate you know he'd run through a brick wall for you. You do not want to be a catcher if he's trying to score on you. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. He's got those intangibles that help the team win."

On a Sox squad filled with wildly talented millionaire All-Stars, Kapler goes about his business quietly, noticing everything around him but saying little.

He is a most unusual big league ballplayer. First of all, he's Jewish, and has become a go-to guy for all questions about Jewish players in the major leagues. Then there's the bike. When the Sox are home, Kapler rides his bicycle to Fenway Park on most game days. It's about 5 miles, mostly on Route 9. He turns left at Brookline Ave. and pedals past the hospitals toward Fenway. It takes about 25 minutes, depending on traffic.

He wears a helmet (which challenges the universal truth that everyone looks like a geek when wearing a bicycle helmet) and said he usually gets recognized once or twice per trip.

And of course there's the whole Charles Atlas thing. As a big leaguer, Kapler's first claim to fame was his sitcom name, conjuring images of Vinnie Barbarino and the catchy theme song by John Sebastian. But then Kapler took off his shirt and even teammates gasped. He looks like he swallowed dumbbells. There was a photograph on these pages last year in which Kapler's forearm appeared to be larger than his head ("camera angle," he said). In a sport populated by the portly likes of Sidney Ponson and Bartolo Colon, Kapler is more ripped than any NFL cornerback. He started hitting the weight room when he was 19 and still pumps iron four or five times a week for 20-25 minutes after games. The rest is diet and good genes -- though he says he'll occasionally eat a hamburger or a piece of cheesecake.

Body-by-Gabe invites questions and wisecracks about steroids (they tease him a lot, 'cuz they've got him on the spot). "I used to take offense," he said. "But I was young and didn't know how to take the ragging of baseball. I've learned not to be reactionary. It's really a compliment when you get down to it."

Kapler's physique sometimes works against him. Like a Little Leaguer who's already a foot taller than the other kids by the time he's 12, people sometimes expect too much.

You look at him and figure he's going to hit homers like Mark McGwire. But he doesn't. Kapler hit only one home run in his first 69 games of 2004.

"Home runs are generally a result of timing, not strength," he said. "And without consistent at-bats, it's hard to have that timing. David McCarty probably has as much power as anyone on this team, but he doesn't have the at-bats and doesn't get the timing."

Kapler's embraced his role as a part timer, not easy for any player.

"I got really familiar with it last year," said Kapler. "Prior to that, I still considered myself an every-day player on whatever team I was on, but on this team that's not going to be the case. So it's really all about mental preparation more than anything. And one of the great things about being here is that the coaching staff gives you a heads up when something is happening [like a Manny Ramirez hamstring injury, for instance]."

He likes playing in a town where baseball matters.

"I love that. I hope all the guys love that. People care, and that makes the players feel cared about. A huge part of me wanting to come back this year was I like the players we have here and I have a good relationship with Theo [Epstein], Josh [Byrnes], and Tito. I so much enjoyed my experience here last year and I wanted to come back. I figured I could take one more shot at winning a World Series as a team guy. I daydream about that every day."

That makes him another citizen of the Nation -- one with Popeye arms, and tattooed calves that alternately remind him of the good and bad days of life in the big leagues.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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