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Always doing his level best

Mueller steady on field, keeps an even keel off it

Bill Mueller slips through the Red Sox clubhouse, unnoticed, unobtrusive, over to the coffeemaker and pours a cup. He turns and slides out of the room. It might be the only glimpse of him you'll get before the game. It might be the only chance to corner him.

The question has already been asked, the day before. He knows the topic of conversation. He's far from convinced.

''Me?" asked the third baseman and subject of recent trade talks, his voice rife with skepticism. ''That's a tough one. What about dogs?"

Typical. Barely noticeable in a clubhouse full of characters, Mueller has few words for the soundbite-seeking media sating itself on Kevin Millar and Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek. Mueller may be many things, but no one would claim he's a good quote. He doesn't need to be.

''He's like a shy little guy," David Ortiz said. ''You don't feel him too much here. But you feel him on the field."

That's where you'll see Mueller. That's your guarantee. He's one of those players who, in baseball parlance, does his talking on the field. He was the one who hit the home run to beat the Yankees in the Varitek-Alex Rodriguez tussle game that became the tipping point for the 2004 Red Sox. He's the only player in history to hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in a game. He's third in the American League in batting average with runners in scoring position at .366, trailing Gary Sheffield and Ortiz.

He hits eighth. He likes to disappear, off the field, at least.

''That's just the way I am," Mueller said. ''There's nothing wrong with celebrity or wanting that or not wanting it. It's just my personality. It's who I married as well, her personality.

''It's such a small window of time. Why change who you are for four years, maybe 10 years? I wouldn't find out who I was if I was changing like that, because of the situation. I want to know who I am and become the best I can become as a person, as a father, as a husband, as a spiritual leader."

He doesn't have to change who he is on this team. And that makes Mueller happy. He can talk about baseball, albeit in clipped vanilla phrases.

Clubhouse favorite
Relief swathes Mueller's face when he is finally absolved of his media responsibilities after the final game of the series against the Twins. He has just sat, stoically, before a crush of reporters who wanted to know exactly how he feels about not being traded. He was asked the question three separate times. It's as if he knows the words by heart, repeating an answer about not giving in to speculation.

But from him, it sounds believable.

He has just had, by his standards, a poor game. He went 0 for 3, ending an 11-game hitting streak. He made a error, turning a smooth diving grab into an unearned run for starter Jon Papelbon by throwing the ball past Tony Graffanino and into right field. He isn't pleased -- ''With the error and some pretty crappy at-bats," he said, ''I might not sleep as good" -- but he's still sitting in the clubhouse, responding to questions.

Not like Friday night. That night, he tucked a home run just past the right-field foul pole. He went 2 for 4 and scored two runs. He vanished after the game. Probably figured he'd have to talk about himself.

He's the only one who won't. Everyone else in the Red Sox clubhouse is more than willing to wax about Mueller's value to the team. They love him. And, perhaps more important, they respect him.

Ortiz, for one, shudders to think about the possibility that Mueller -- whom he calls a ''5-year-old" and mocks for his fear of flying -- could have been shipped to another team.

''One, Billy won the batting title for this ball club," Ortiz said. ''Two, he won a World Series. Three, he is a top-of-the-line third baseman. The guy makes plays out there, amazing. And the guy is a clutch hitter. You don't get that everywhere. So if you're going to give a guy like that away, you better bring something crazy out there. You don't get players like that every day."

But Mueller wasn't confident of holding his spot in Boston, not even after manager Terry Francona assured him earlier in the week that just because a team -- or teams -- wanted him, it didn't mean he would be traded. Mueller, ever prepared, packed an extra bag full of equipment on the Sox' trip to Chicago and Tampa. Just in case.

Father knows
Mueller smiles, media persona melting away for a second. His voice picks up, shifts into a quick banter. He's holding the USA Today crossword puzzle. He calls himself green, declares he's not quite ready for The New York Times version. But, he says, twinkle in his slate blue eyes, it helps him learn new words. It helps his spelling. That way he'll always know when asked, eventually, by 2 1/2-year-old daughter Alexis and 9-month-old son Ashton. He won't have to send them running for the dictionary.

That might be the key to his level demeanor. They might be the reason he will talk after a no-hit, one-error day and take off after a home run.

''What I've learned over time, playing the game, is as soon as I walk out of this clubhouse, you put it to bed because you can't change it," Mueller said. ''You can only be so hard on yourself so it doesn't hurt you the next day or hurt you in the future.

''I tell you what, having the family and your children running up to you, it's kind of hard to keep that with you, too. It's easy to turn the page once you, kind of, leave the clubhouse because your role isn't a baseball player anymore. It's a father."

Baseball never really could be his whole life. For him there always has been something extra to do. Always some reason to stay on edge, to sharpen that focus -- to ignore the extraneous pieces, like cultivating quotes.

''This is a guy that went undrafted as a junior in college, went to [the] Cape Cod [League] the summer after his junior year," said Keith Guttin, Mueller's coach at Southwest Missouri State. ''He would not be denied. He went up there, lifted, hit .300 in a pitchers' league.

''I think Billy's always felt he has to prove himself every year. That's what helped him stay motivated, because he's not the biggest or the fastest. He has a plan for success and he follows it very closely."

That's what allowed him to carve out a 10-year major league career with the Sox, Giants, and Cubs. It's what has gotten him to a batting title (when he hit .326 during his first year in Boston), a .429 average in last season's World Series, a reputation as one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. It's the reason he has been able to keep prospect Kevin Youkilis in Triple A.

It's the reason he can remain, relatively, silent.

''I think the thing that lets him slide by -- and I feel the same way -- Billy and myself, [we] don't play for accolades from the media or the public or anything that way," said Sox pitcher Matt Clement, who also was Mueller's teammate on the Cubs. ''That's the thing with Billy, he's playing for the respect of his teammates, not the praise of the media or the public or to be the big guy walking around town."

He doesn't need to be Ortiz (or Millar or Damon). He doesn't need the jewelry in his ears and around his neck. He doesn't need the booming voice. He doesn't want to be the go-to player after the game. He'll take his bat and leave the talking to the rest. He's content concealed.

''That's good to have all different types of personalities," Mueller said. ''It would be boring to have all types like me."

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