Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Back in business

Henry and Mantei reunited -- with Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If there were a Major League Baseball Owners Manual, somewhere near the beginning would be this directive: Thou shalt not show emotion when a favorite player is dealt, for baseball is a business.

Red Sox owner John W. Henry, who has a soft spot for ballplayers who bring equal joy to the clubhouse and the community, couldn't help himself in July 1999. Dave Dombrowski, then general manager of the Florida Marlins, a team owned by Henry, traded esteemed closer Matt Mantei to Arizona.

"John Henry came to me in tears," Mantei said Tuesday, adding that he cried, too.

Henry, in an e-mail, explained: "After becoming an owner, Matt was the first player I really knew who was traded. Two weeks later, Livan Hernandez was traded. I hated to see them go. I knew Dave Dombrowski knew exactly what he was doing and that there was no [way] I was going to oppose any trade he made. ". . . I was like a fan, but one who also knew these men personally. Losing Mark Kotsay in 2001 was tough. Leaving the individual men on the team we had put together at the end of 2001 was the toughest part of the transition to Boston."

Nearly six years later, Mantei and Henry will be reunited when Henry arrives at Red Sox spring training next week. Mantei, who signed a one-year deal with the club for a guaranteed $750,000, is already training at City of Palms Park alongside Wade Miller and Trot Nixon.

Mantei, like Miller, was plucked from the low-risk, high-reward aisle when general manager Theo Epstein went shopping for discount arms this winter. The 31-year-old Mantei made $7 million last season in Arizona but pitched only 10 2/3 innings (0-3, 11.81 ERA). His season came to a premature end in late June when he underwent shoulder surgery to repair a clavicular bone spur that had been cutting into his labrum.

"The surgery was something I should have done after '03," said Mantei, who could net $2.5 million this season if he meets health and performance standards. "I had 29 saves and a low 2 [actually 2.62] ERA [in 2003]. Last year I went out, I couldn't finish a fastball, I couldn't finish a slider. Everything was up in the zone.

"It probably wasn't a good idea to wait to have surgery in my free agent year, but I thought I'd be all right. I was still throwing upper 90s, it was just all belt high or above. The bone was just banging. It was killing me. I would wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to move my arm."

Mantei's four-year, $22 million contract with Arizona expired at the end of last season, and he knew he wanted to play for the Sox the moment Epstein called. When Mantei visited Boston in early December, the plan was to undergo a physical and meet with a fleet of Sox executives, including manager Terry Francona.

"My agent said, `Don't tell them you're signing until Francona gets there,' " Mantei recalled. "He was supposed to be late. When I got there, he was already there. I walked up and said, `I'm signing with you guys.' "

"If Mantei comes in and is Mantei, all of a sudden [Mike] Timlin, [Alan] Embree, and [Keith] Foulke are better because they don't have to pitch the innings they shouldn't pitch," Francona said yesterday, sitting outside City of Palms Park. The prospect of a healthy Mantei is exciting. He employs a fastball, slider, and curve, and claims he can still throw mid- to upper 90s. In nine seasons, all in the National League, he's 13-18 with a 3.86 ERA and 93 saves in 112 opportunities.

He has two World Series rings, though both times -- in 1997 with Florida and 2001 with Arizona -- he was on the disabled list. In 1997, he was recovering from rotator cuff surgery, and in 2001 he'd undergone Tommy John elbow tendon surgery.

"My elbow's never been a problem since '01," Mantei said. "[Tuesday] was the first day I threw to a catcher on flat ground. I was a little rusty, but I'll be ready to roll."

In 2003, Mantei's last full season, he converted 29 of 32 save opportunities, limiting opposing hitters to a .191 average in 55 innings. His role in Boston promises to be different, but he said he's more than OK with that.

"I'm with the Red Sox," he said. "Whatever I can do to help this team win. The bottom line is I just have to stay healthy. Help set up Foulke, that's fine."

Mantei said he's intrigued by the personalities in the Sox clubhouse. And, he said he might be willing to be a setup man here for a few seasons rather than close elsewhere because of the personalities on the team and the passion of the city. Henry said that attitude, coupled with his composure, will serve Mantei well. In Florida, he developed the nickname "Ice Man."

"Matt reminds me a lot of A.J. Burnett, Curt [Schilling], Tim [Wakefield], Nomar [Garciaparra], Jason [Varitek], and others who will do whatever it takes on and off the field to make an impact on the community and in the clubhouse," Henry said. "When he was traded [to Arizona], he was our most popular player."

Mantei said that win or lose, he will be at his locker, waiting for the media.

"I'll always be there," he said. "If I give it up, I'll be there. If I strike out the side in the eighth, I'll be there. It doesn't matter to me. You can't really think about it too much or it'll eat you up."

According to Mantei, that might happen with his former Arizona teammate, and new Yankee, Randy Johnson.

"He doesn't like attention," Mantei said. "He's going to have problems. He doesn't like a lot of attention, lots of people bothering him. It's not a good place. It would be like coming here. The more people bothering you, if you don't like attention, it's not the right spot."

Mantei knows he'll have to earn his respect among Boston fans. If that task becomes a burden, he'll have at least one person rooting privately. And perhaps, helping him along.

"I remember I blew a save early in the season, I think it was '99," Mantei said. "I came back the next day and there was a note in my locker from John Henry. He told me not to worry about it, that I was still one of the best closers in baseball, that I'd have a great year. He was just a really genuine, nice person."

red sox extras
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives