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Will dreams end at Fenway?

Petagine hopes to catch on with Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The patch of skin looks to be about 3 inches long, maybe 2 inches wide. Each day for the last six seasons, when looking in the mirror in clubhouses of the Yakult and Yomiuri teams in Japan, Roberto Petagine saw that skin on his right shoulder, shaded red, white, and blue. It was a reminder of what was and what could be.

"Every time I see [myself], it was there," Petagine said yesterday.

It is a tattoo of the Major League Baseball logo, inked 11 seasons ago in Jackson, Miss., where the Venezuela-born first baseman was playing Double A baseball. He was 22, chasing a dream. Now, he's more or less chasing a vapor trail, taking one last shot at something that has eluded him since 1998: a spot in the big leagues.

That pursuit brought Petagine to Red Sox spring training, where he's contending for a roster spot as a lefthanded bat off the bench or an alternate at first base to Kevin Millar.

"He's got nothing to prove in Japan," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He was a dominant player over there for a long time. If you asked him, I think he'd tell you he has something to prove over here. That will depend, first and foremost, on opportunity, on his ability to make adjustments, and on his ability to adapt to not playing every day."

Petagine, 33, arrives with impeccable credentials. His career OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) in six seasons in Japan was 1.051. By way of explanation -- though certainly not comparison -- Barry Bonds has a career OPS of 1.053, which is fourth best in major league history.

In those six seasons, Petagine hit .317 with 223 home runs and 594 RBIs. He won three Gold Gloves, claimed two home run titles, and landed one MVP award.

"I'm very proud of myself, all the seasons, the six-year career over there," he said.

Question is: What is the exchange rate?

For Hideki Matsui, Petagine's slugging peer in Japan, offensive production continued in the States with the Yankees. Though Petagine is not as young, talented, or highly regarded as Matsui was when he crossed the Pacific, they posted near-identical totals during the four seasons (1999-2002) they overlapped in Japan. Matsui, in that time, slugged 170 home runs to Petagine's 160. Petagine knocked in 429 runs to Matsui's 414.

In fact, it was Petagine who moved from Yakult to Yomiuri in 2003 to replace Matsui in the lineup when Godzilla relocated to the Bronx. Petagine continued to hit, with 34 long balls and a .323 average that season.

Petagine has always hit. He was a three-time All-Star in the minors and won the International League MVP in 1997, when he hit .317 with 31 HRs and 100 RBIs. But his major league experience is limited to 193 games between 1994 and 1998, when he hit .225 with 10 HRs and 43 RBIs with Houston, San Diego, the Mets, and Cincinnati. He's not as spry as he once was. He moves a bit awkwardly, bounces really. He's slowed laterally since surgery on his left knee in 2003.

"Other than that, I'm fine," he said. "They cleaned fluid out of my knee and said it's OK to continue on. When the year comes, you don't feel 21, but you have to adjust and play."

If he makes the team, he will not bring what Doug Mientkiewicz did.

"[Petagine's] a hitter," Epstein said. "He's a really good lefthanded batter with our kind of approach: patience and power."

Petagine's head-to-head competition this spring is David McCarty, regarded as the best defensive first baseman in camp. The fact that Petagine hits lefthanded and hits for power could make him a more appealing candidate.

But the Sox might not need anyone at the position. It's possible that David Ortiz backs up Millar, and the Sox keep Rule 5 pick Adam Stern, an outfielder, for the last roster spot.

"Depending how that decision goes probably affects the next decision," manager Terry Francona said.

Another possibility: The Sox keep Stern and someone else, perhaps Petagine, and option Kevin Youkilis to Pawtucket.

"That stuff -- Youkilis, McCarty, Petagine -- that won't be determined for a while," Francona said. "It shouldn't be. It will depend how they fit. [The 25th spot] might be a job we look at as a base runner or a defensive player. We'll do what fits our club."

Petagine's swing, Epstein believes, would fit well at Fenway.

"He hits the ball to the left-center-field gap pretty often," Epstein said. "He's got enough pop to hit the ball off the Wall."

If Petagine makes the club, he would earn $750,000. Bonuses would kick in at 250 plate appearances. If he does not make the Red Sox, he retains the right to return to Japan, he said. But he's not thinking about that at this point. Rather, he's thinking about the weather in the Fens in April.

"I have never been there in that park," he said. "I hear you have to hit the ball the other way the first month because it doesn't carry too much. And I hear in July, August that the ball carries."

Hearing is one thing. Seeing is believing.

Just ask Epstein.

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