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Now is the time to look at future

The future made an appearance at Fenway Park this week, and it was a beautiful thing.

For the last few days, the Red Sox have given 11 of their top upper-level prospects an immersion course in what it means to be in the big leagues, playing for this team, in this town.

Never mind stashing these guys in a luxury hotel downtown. Director of player development Ben Cherington, who is running this program with Craig Shipley, the former big-leaguer valued by general manager Theo Epstein for his input in both scouting and player development, has these players staying with host families around the Boston area.

"I'm staying with Dr. Kehlman and his family in Newton," volunteered Jon Lester, the lefthanded pitching prospect so highly regarded, the Texas Rangers asked for him last winter as part of the abortive Alex Rodriguez deal. "Great people, but these people are fanatics. They know everything about the Red Sox. We were out to dinner at Morton's, and when Theo and some of his people went running out of the room, they were wondering who had been traded."

There has been baseball in the morning -- daily workouts at Harvard -- but afternoons have been spent on Yawkey Way. They heard from the GM, who is only a few years older than they are, and manager Terry Francona, who delivered the old-fashioned but still relevant message that hustle will take them a long way. Joe Cochran, the equipment manager, and Jack McCormick, the traveling secretary, talked to them about everything from how much to tip the clubhouse kid to how to conduct yourself on the road.

Bob Tewksbury, the former big-league pitcher and NESN analyst just hired as the team's sports psychology coach, talked about how best to develop mental skills, even in the face of a game that dangles success but guarantees disappointment. Eddie Dominguez, the Boston detective who is an integral part of the team's security detail, and a couple of FBI agents warned them about the places and people to avoid, and the dangers of gambling. They also were shepherded on a visit to Jimmy Fund cancer patients, and got an introduction to what that can mean, too.

Last night, Cherington, who loves to lace on the skates and play hockey in his downtime, had lined up Bruins coach Mike Sullivan as a speaker, figuring Sullivan could offer the perspective of someone who had grown up here, played here in college (Boston University), and had coached in the minors and in the NHL. Who better to talk with the players about the high expectations and sometimes impossible demands they would face here, or how to cope with the yo-yoing from the minors to the majors that is so often part of a young player's experience?

There is a common theme that runs through this Sox regime, and ripples from the clubhouse occupied by Curt Schilling and David Ortiz to the much more modest outposts in places such as Sarasota and Portland, Fort Myers and Lowell. Yes, it takes talent to play for the Red Sox, but there are certain other qualities that matter here maybe more than in other places where the spotlights don't shine with quite as much heat. Things like mental toughness and resilience, discipline at the plate and on the mound and in your cubicle, an awareness of how important their performance is to the 35,000 folks who fill Fenway Park night after night.

Yesterday afternoon, Cherington gave the prospects a taste of the attention certain to come their way if they make it to the big leagues, sitting them in front of television cameras and having them mingle with the notepad-and-pen set. Not the most important part of a ballplayer's existence, to be sure, but one that certainly cannot be ignored here. Watching the poise of knocking-on-the-door catcher Kelly Shoppach, listening to the renewed hopes of West Roxbury's Manny Delcarmen, well on the road to a full recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery, seeing the confidence ooze out of Dustin Pedroia, the little shortstop selected by the Sox with their first pick in last June's draft, recognizing the maturity of Hanley Ramirez, the jewel of the system, sensing the power and promise of young pitchers such as Lester and Jon Papelbon, you could not help but recognize that Epstein's pledge to turn the Sox into a player development machine was not an echo of the hollow promises made by some of his predecessors.

"It's hard to quantify," Cherington said of the progress made in building the farm system, a process that will receive an important boost in June when the Sox will have six of the first 60 picks in the draft, "but there's some tangible evidence. We've had prospects, but they've been mostly in the lower levels. This year, we will have a team in Double A mostly made up of home-grown, young players who soon will have a chance to make a contribution in Boston.

"We're not yet where we need to be, but we're getting closer."

Lester was in Fenway Park last October for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, sitting just seven rows behind home plate. The Sox were blown out by the Yankees, but that was only a small part of what he took from the experience.

"You know, you have your ups and downs," said Lester, a thoughtful 21-year-old who looks you in the eye when he speaks, "and when you're down, you sometimes say to yourself, `Why am I here?' Like when I gave up nine runs one day without getting an out, and you're thinking, `Why do they think so highly of me? I'll never pitch in Fenway.' But then you slowly get your confidence back, and your dream back, and what you're really playing for."

Papelbon is 24 years old, with the kind of build scouts dream about when they're looking for a pitcher -- he's listed at 6 feet 4 inches, 230 pounds. A closer at Mississippi State, Papelbon was told he would be converted to a starter from the day he was drafted in the fourth round in 2003 and signed by scout Joe Mason. It was a struggle that first season in short-season Lowell, but last season Papelbon made great strides in developing a slider and "fosh" -- part splitter, part changeup -- to complement his 92-94-mile-per-hour fastball and a plus curveball. He also learned much about the mental demands that go into pitching seven innings as opposed to coming in for a game's final three outs.

Papelbon is not unaware of the realities of this business, that for all the talent in the room only a handful of these players may ever wear a Red Sox uniform. Prospects are traded, or wash out, or break down.

"I don't worry about those things," he said in his unmistakable drawl. "But deep down in my heart, I want to be a franchise player. I want to stay in Boston forever. This is a place I can grow as a player, a place I can mature as a player.

"And I really believe that the Boston Red Sox can win some championships for a few years to come. I don't think there's going to be any 86-year gaps." 

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