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Just another comeback year

Adversity can't stop Lowell

MIAMI -- There's a dentist in town, whose office is right here on US 1 in Coral Gables, Fla., whose phone has been ringing off the hook lately, mostly with calls from Puerto Rico. A sudden urge for root canals in San Juan?

No, folks on the island have been pressing Dr. Carl Lowell because they want to know if his son, Mike, planned to follow in his father's footsteps. One of the proudest moments in the life of Carl Lowell, whose parents were Cuban but had to flee the island, was pitching for Puerto Rico in the Pan American Games and beating powerful Cuba. He is believed to be the only pitcher of Cuban descent to accomplish that feat, and after the game, Carl Lowell chose to go back and sit on the team bus rather than join his teammates to shake hands with dictator Fidel Castro.

Now, people were asking, would Mike Lowell, the new Red Sox third baseman, represent Puerto Rico in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, and, perhaps, have history repeat itself with another win over Cuba, assuming the United States government decides to lift its ban preventing Cuba's participation?

''It would have been very unique, two generations representing their country in the same sport," Mike Lowell said. ''I haven't decided officially, but I'm leaning against not doing so. It's not in the best interests of the Red Sox or my career right now."

Not when it means missing three weeks of spring training with his new team. ''Five days, maybe," he said, ''but not three weeks. I want to use that time to get in the flow, get ready for April. My dad understands. I think even before I talked to him he was on my side."

It is not in his best interests when Lowell is looking to reestablish his reputation after batting just .236 with eight home runs and 58 RBIs last season with the Marlins, an enormous drop-off for a guy who has hit more home runs (143) and knocked in more runs (578) than anyone in the Marlins' short (12-year) history.

Toughest year of his career? Sure, if you go strictly by the numbers. Not even close, compared to 1999, when he walked into his first Marlins camp after being traded by the Yankees, where he'd been stuck behind Scott Brosius, took what was supposed to be a routine physical, and was told that he had testicular cancer, just five days before his 25th birthday.

''Scariest thing I've ever gone through," said Lowell, speaking at his home in Pinecrest, a Miami neighborhood about 3 miles from where he grew up in Coral Gables. He played volleyball on the middle school team coached by his father and gravitated to baseball in a town whose biggest star at the time was another Cuban-American, Jose Canseco.

''He was my favorite player," Lowell said. ''He was totally hyped up in Miami, the local boy who made good. They named 16th Street, Jose Canseco Street."

For a short time, Mike Lowell played for the same high school, Columbus, as Alex Rodriguez, whose fame would eclipse even that of Canseco, before both boys transferred, Lowell to Coral Gables High, Rodriguez to the private Westminster Christian. They didn't play against each other in high school, and while they now can expect to face each other 19 times a season, Lowell said he and A-Rod's paths don't cross much.

''When he was in Texas and we played interleague, I went to his house and had dinner," Lowell said. ''But he's very busy. I think he's in a different stratosphere as an individual. I might see him at a charity event. We're cordial, but we're not hangout buddies."

Not that Lowell hasn't enjoyed his own bouts of celebrity, including the one that prompted a call from the Marlins' public relations office last year to tell him that the Spanish edition of People Magazine had placed him on its list of the 50 most beautiful people.

''The guy calls and says, 'Congratulations, beautiful,' " Lowell said. ''I go, 'What?' He says you've been named by People Magazine. I go, 'Like, whatever, dude.' He says, 'Seriously, they want to set up a photo thing.' "

Lowell, who is 6 feet 3 inches and has been compared in looks to tennis star Pete Sampras, knew he was in for it when the magazine came out and the clubhouse was unusually quiet.

''Three weeks later," he said, ''there were T-shirts at everybody's locker."

The T-shirts were the work of Marlins teammate Jeff Conine, who took a photo from the magazine spread and had it reprinted on the T-shirts, with the inscription, ''Yo Soy Muy Sexy." (''I Am Very Sexy.")

''That's nothing I would ever wear," Lowell said with a laugh.

Cancer scare
It was just six years earlier, of course, that Lowell wondered if he'd ever put on a Marlins uniform, after the diagnosis came back as cancer. ''I never felt anything," he said. ''They found it. The doctor asked me if I'd ever felt pain -- no -- or if I'd ever been involved in a collision, like at home plate. That's something I would have remembered, especially if it had happened there.

''He said, 'Let's go to the hospital.' My whole world came crashing down that afternoon."

Before Lowell went into surgery, doctors told him that testicular cancer is more treatable than most, and since he'd undergone a similar physical the year before with the Yankees and they hadn't found anything, perhaps it had not progressed much. The biopsy proved that to be the case, Lowell underwent radiation treatments, and wound up playing that season, splitting time between the Marlins and their Triple A farm team. The cancer has stayed in remission, though he had a scare in 2003 when doctors found a growth on his hip that proved unrelated (''I was jumping up and down like I'd won the damn lottery."), and he and his wife, Bertica, his high school sweetheart and former Miami Heat dance team member, have had two children.

After the '99 season, Boston's baseball writers named Lowell winner of the annual Tony Conigliaro Award for courage and perseverance. He came to the writers' dinner that year, and not only learned about New England winters (''It must have snowed at least 8 inches that day.") but about New England's love of the game (''Unbelievable," he said. ''Here it was January, and that ballroom was slammed.").

He was reminded of that again, after being traded to the Sox by the Marlins as part of the Josh Beckett deal, when former Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, an ex-Marlins teammate, called him on the phone.

''He said, 'Congratulations, you just got called up to the big leagues,' " Lowell said. ''He told me the atmosphere is great, electric. He said those day games after night games, you feed off the energy.

''It doesn't make you play better, but it makes you feel better, when you get that energy. And maybe, when you feel better, I guess you sometimes play better, too."

From high to low
Lowell, who had a career year in 2003, when his 32 home runs and 105 RBIs helped lead the Marlins to a World Series title over the Yankees, signed a long-term deal with the Marlins after the season, but tied the contract to the Marlins' ability to build a new stadium, knowing how important that was to the viability of the franchise. He later had the contract reworked, striking out that clause, but he is disappointed that his hometown has not given the team better support, which has led to a dismantling of the roster.

''I think the 2004 season was more disappointing from a support standpoint than last season," he said. ''There was a honeymoon for us as world champions. The first week was great -- we got our rings, the first five games were sold out -- but that was it. The stadium situation hit a standstill, and I was saying, what has to happen for people to jump on our bandwagon?"

Carl Lowell, his son said, is already working on being able to watch Sox games on television this summer. Mike Lowell trusts that his father (''My dad is my biggest fan," he says) will see a different player than the one who won a Gold Glove last season, making just six errors, but was miserable at the plate.

''One big difference I noticed last year is that the last 10 days of spring training, I always get in synch and am ready to go," he said. ''I usually have very good Aprils and Mays. But last year, for reasons I wish I knew, I didn't feel in synch at the end of spring training and the first 10 days of the season.

''I'm not very patient when things aren't going well, and I started making a lot of adjustments. In hindsight, I wish I had tried to stick with one approach longer instead of going for the quick fix.

''I have to believe the six years prior to last year are a better indicator of what I can do. But it matured me a lot. I have to prove not only to myself, but to the people who follow the game, what I can do. Baseball is a what have you done for me lately world. One bad year and they think you're done."

The Red Sox were willing to take on the $9 million owed Lowell this season, mostly because that was the price of acquiring Beckett, but because they think he is capable of a bounce-back season, especially at Fenway, which is made to order for his pull swing.

''Baseball-wise, I've started earlier this year," Lowell said, ''because I want to be in synch. We'll see. I'm confident I can come back and have a great year. I haven't been this excited for the start of a season in a long time."

Sorry, Puerto Rico. But it looks as if the Sox will have first dibs.

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