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Kapler says sayonara and heads off to Japan

So it begins, the makeover of the world champion Red Sox.

Gabe Kapler yesterday became the first man out when he signed for about $2 million to play next season for the Yomiuri Giants, the Japanese juggernaut that produced home run king Sadaharu Oh and Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui.

Many other members of the '04 Sox are expected to depart as well, either through free agency (Kapler was one of the team's 16 free agents) or trades.

"There was no way everyone was going to be back," team president and CEO Larry Lucchino said last night before the premiere of "The Official 2004 World Series DVD" at the Wang Theater. "But that's not entirely bad. Every year, there's some turnover."

Kapler, who became one of the more popular players after he joined the Sox in June 2003, opted for Japan because the Giants guaranteed he would be their every-day center fielder, according to his agent, Paul Cohen. The Sox were one of many teams pursuing him as a part-time player.

"He's tremendously excited," Cohen said. "But he obviously has some heartfelt pain because he is leaving a situation he loved."

Kapler agonized over the decision for several days before accepting Yomiuri's offer, which amply exceeded Boston's. Kapler earned $750,000 last season with the Sox.

"Gabe was a real contributor on and off the field: an ideal teammate, a fan favorite, and the type of player who made the front office proud," Sox general manager Theo Epstein said.

Kapler, 29, believes he could play professionally for as many as eight to 10 more years but considers it essential to prove himself again as an every-day player, Cohen said. Kapler hit .279 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs in 204 games in his Sox career and led the team last season with 59 starts in right field because of Trot Nixon's injuries.

Nixon said Yomiuri, which plays at the Tokyo Dome, signed a special player.

"They're getting not only a good ballplayer but a great person," Nixon said.

With Kapler gone, Dave Roberts could serve as the primary backup outfielder behind Nixon, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon, though the Sox have a long way to go in shaping the roster for next season. They are likely to pursue a righthanded-hitting outfielder who could fill Kapler's role.

"Selfishly, I don't want to him to go, but for his sake I'm thrilled," Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That's a lot of money."

Yankees lauded
Amid conflicting reports in New York about whether the Yankees have offered Pedro Martinez a four-year contract (the latest word is that the Yankees have not made any offer), the three-time Cy Young Award winner was quoted by the El Caribe newspaper as speaking favorably about his meeting with the Yankees.

"The reception with the Yankees was huge," Martinez was quoted as saying. "The Yankees have a lot of respect for me."

He described Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as "a lot better than people think" and said he had a "very pleasant" encounter with Derek Jeter during the two-hour stop at the Yankees complex in Tampa.

The Sox, who last week improved their offer to Martinez to all but guarantee him about $40 million over three years, now appear poised to stand their ground until they see evidence that they are competing with any other team for his services. They have yet to be convinced he has received another serious offer.

Lucchino, who said ownership's meeting last week with Martinez "went fine," declined to discuss the negotiations. But when asked about reports in New York that the Yankees had offered Martinez as much as $60 million over four years, he said, "At this time of year, no matter who the free agent is, you have to be a little careful about about relying on newspaper and media data for information."

Francona denied reports that he had a difficult relationship with Martinez.

"It was an adjustment probably for me," Francona said, "but a lot of managing is."

Nixon finds it hard to imagine Martinez in pinstripes.

"I don't see many guys who have spent so much time here in Boston just up and go to New York," Nixon said. "Not someone like Petey, as much as he cares about the city of Boston and the fans. I'm not saying he can't do it. I just think in the end he's going to be in a Red Sox uniform."

Making pitches
Nixon and Mike Timlin, who also attended the DVD premiere, expressed special urgency in the Sox re-signing Jason Varitek. Nixon called Varitek "the backbone" and unofficial captain of the team. Timlin said retaining Varitek was crucial "for the preservation of this team." And Francona said he was "a little torn" about how much he should lobby Varitek to return. "Me calling him and begging him to come back isn't going to do it," Francona said. "But he knows how much I think of him." . . . The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting the Brewers are close to signing free agent catcher Damian Miller to a three-year deal. The paper said Miller's agent, Bob Garber, turned to the Brewers after being unable to secure a similar deal with the Sox . . . The Sox officially invited back their entire major league coaching staff except bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, who left the organization rather than accept a job as Double A pitching coach. Bill Haselman is considered the leading candidate to replace Rojas . . . The Sox, who promoted former Double A Portland manager Ron Johnson last week to guide Triple A Pawtucket, replaced Johnson at Portland with Todd Claus, who last year managed Single A Sarasota (now Single A Wilmington). Claus will be succeeded by Dann Bilardello, who spent the last two seasons managing Single A Columbus for the Dodgers. Former Sox pitcher Al Nipper was promoted to minor league pitching coordinator after spending the last two seasons as Sarasota's pitching coach . . . No date has been set for the Sox to visit the White House, but Orlando Cabrera got a jump on the team by meeting President Bush yesterday in Cabrera's native Colombia. "There's the champ right there," Bush said in greeting Cabrera at a baseball academy founded by Cabrera's countryman and fellow free agent shortstop, Edgar Renteria. "Champ, congratulations," Bush said. "Mighty Red Sox." Bush and Cabrera visited with members of a Pan-American youth championship team and a team from Renteria's academy. One of the youngsters presented Bush with a blue and gold jersey that said, "O. Cabrera," and was emblazoned with Cabrera's number, 44. "He just missed it by one number," Bush said, referring to his rank in the sequence of presidents.

Glen Johnson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. 

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