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At third, Mueller is first about the team

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kevin Millar was asked last week to rank the biggest Red Sox hits of 2004.

"Billy Mueller's hit off [Mariano] Rivera [on July 24]," Millar said. "David Ortiz's hit off [Esteban] Loaiza in Game 5, the blooper into center. Mueller's single up the middle [in Game 4] would probably be the next one. And Ortiz's homer [in Game 4] would be the one after that."

The conclusion: "Billy Mueller had two in the top four," Millar said. "You don't even know. Nobody talks about his single up the middle. Everybody talks about [Dave Roberts's] stolen base."

This is why the Red Sox win. This is why they won 98 games last season, then 11 in the postseason. This man hits eighth and did all that.

Run a search on third basemen since 1996 -- the year Mueller broke into the majors -- who have hit at least .275 with an on-base percentage of .350 or better and at least 50 home runs and 400 RBIs. Choose a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances.

The list: Mueller, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Eric Chavez, Corey Koskie, and Jeff Cirillo. Among that class, Mueller ranks third in average (.292) and on-base percentage (.374) and sixth in home runs (72) and RBIs (416). Add "500 or fewer strikeouts" to that search and only Mueller (488) is left standing.

Jones, next to Mueller, is the only switch hitter on the list. Mueller, in fact, is 16th all-time in on-base percentage among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances, two spots behind Pete Rose (.375). And to think, Mueller said last Sunday, "They had me, I think in the Giants organization, as a Triple A utility guy."

That wasn't said in spite, or with an air of braggadocio. Neither of those elements exist in Mueller's makeup. Rather, Mueller was explaining why he places such emphasis on each season, not just this season, a time when he's coming off his second knee scope in a year and is in the last year of his contract. He'll make $2.4 million this season.

"The season's always the same to me," said Mueller, who turned 34 earlier this month. "It's going out there and competing and jumping at balls every game. That's what I do. That's what I enjoy doing. I'm the type of guy who has to prove himself every single season because of the type of position I play and the size I am. It's been [the case] for years.

"[My contract] will be decided at the end of the season. That's totally OK with me because I'm really laid-back on it."

Mueller has stated in camp that his goal is to set a career high in games played. His best was the 153 he played in 2000 with San Francisco.

"Let's get this straight," he said. "That's the goal every year. I always believe that going into every season, so don't think this year is any different than the next year or first year I've ever played."

It's as if Mueller, a Missouri native, spends all of his time in the Show Me State. With Mueller, more than anyone else in the Sox clubhouse, there is no separating the cliche from the truth. What he says is what he means. And anything outside the chalk is, effectively, off limits.

"It's not something I enjoy, talking about myself," Mueller said. "I enjoy talking about the game of baseball. It seems like your questions lead outside the lines a lot of times. I try and stay private and really, that's my business. That's how I see it."

Millar has a name for this: Billy Ballgame.

"We love Billy for who he is, Billy Ballgame," Millar said. "He's a great teammate, a good person. That's where you get mixed up. You don't have to do television, you don't have to be the funny person, to be a good guy. Same thing with Manny Ramirez. Billy Mueller chooses to prepare himself in his own way."

That, however, does not mean he gets a free pass. Last weekend Mueller walked into the Sox clubhouse, and Millar, upon seeing the third baseman's birch-colored legs, shouted, "Hey, you have one week to get to the beach."

It's a safe bet that Mueller and his SPF-30 never made it to Sanibel. He's got too much work to do. He had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Feb. 7, and before that, had a similar procedure done last May, limiting him to 110 games last season.

Expected to be limited to off-field activities for a month following the most recent procedure, Mueller was hitting, running, and throwing 15 days removed from the operating room. He's done everything asked of him and more in camp, save an appearance on Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." The Fab Five made over Millar, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Doug Mirabelli but got a thanks-but-no-thanks from Mueller."Don't take that as me not having fun," he said. "I have fun in my own space among the guys. It's kind of like I pick my spots a little bit more than most people." He relishes the quieter, more meaningful moments, such as the phone call he received from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa following the World Series. And celebrating that Game 4 Series-clinching at home in St. Louis.

"[There was] enjoyment in the fact that my parents, my friends, could come out to the game, could enjoy a World Series," he said.

But what about him, his enjoyment?

"I look at the whole year, and it's a team thing," he said. "That's why it's so special. Throughout our entire season everybody has a moment or two when they can help the ballclub, maybe in the last inning. A play or a pitch. [Derek Lowe] when we were playing Oakland. You play so you can have moments like that as a team."

He would never say that two of the epochal hits of last season -- of the 104 seasons played by the Sox, for that matter -- belonged to him, but they did. Doesn't he ever think about this?

"No, because my career's still going," he said. "They say if you listen to the fans you'll be sitting next to them, whether it's good or bad.

"Maybe someday down the road when you're done playing you hear those things, and that's nice. Right now this is my thing that I've got to take care of, my job, my business.

"It's nice to hear compliments, but what if they aren't complimenting you? What are you going to do, stop playing? Think less of yourself?"

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