FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Gabe Kapler was ''ecstatic" to be here yesterday, and of course he was, because, well, he's Gabe Kapler.
Beyond the genuine joy that defines the 30-year-old Southern Californian was a genuine belief that he will again play baseball at full strength. Five months and one day after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles' tendon, Kapler pulled on a Red Sox uniform, played catch, and described himself as ''very pleased" with his progress.
''I'm hitting and throwing lightly right now," he said. ''As far as a target date, I don't know. When [the tendon] allows me to push off hard and run. My goal is to be full speed, 100 percent. For me, I'm not pushing anything. I've learned a little bit of patience."
Kapler was expected to need six months before restarting baseball activities and one full year before returning to full strength. Regardless of his health, because he was released and re-signed by the same team, he is not contractually allowed to play until May 15. If he were ready to play on that date, he would be at least a month or so ahead of projections. Is that possible?
''The truth is, I just don't know," Kapler said. ''I will be smart this time.
''My understanding is that the tendon is not fully mature until a year post-surgery. That doesn't mean you can't be explosive and 100 percent prior to that year. The maturity level of the tendon, what that means, is open to interpretation."
There is, he acknowledged, ''a certain re-rupture rate." And that's why he's pacing himself.
Some background on Kapler's contract: The team signed him before last season to a two-year deal that would effectively allow him to make what he would have made had he remained in Japan, where he began the season. The Sox released him in November to clear a 40-man roster spot, with the intention of bringing him back.
Had he signed elsewhere this year, the Sox would have been paying him for the second year of his deal. Currently, he's signed to a minor league contract but effectively will pocket about what he would have had he never been released.
''They were up front with me and tremendously communicative," Kapler said.
Always excellent in the clubhouse, Kapler's presence could be even more important in the absence of Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, and Doug Mirabelli.
''It's probably an accurate statement," Curt Schilling said. ''He was part of that core mix of guys that made this place what it was, the fun environment it was. He's one of my favorite teammates of all time. Having him back is a big deal for us."
It's difficult to trust your eyes when watching pitchers throw in February, but it's evident from seeing Josh Beckett, Jon Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Schilling throw side by side that the three younger pitchers are driving off the mound and throwing the ball with more authority than Schilling. ''It's not something I'm even concerned with now," Schilling said. ''I'm very comfortable with the way my foot's working. I'm where I want to be." It's worth noting that Schilling threw off a mound for 19 minutes yesterday, while Beckett, Papelbon, and Lester threw for the standard 12 minutes. ''Bullpenwise, I'm not going to be able to get the work in I want to get in in 12 minutes," Schilling said. ''I need to start fine-tuning things." . . . Lester threw to Jason Varitek yesterday for the first time and demonstrated poise. Varitek, to begin the session, set up on the outside corner of the plate, and as he did, he asked Lester, ''Where do you want me?" Lester nodded, indicating that Varitek's positioning was fine. The 22-year-old then unleashed a fastball that hit Varitek square in the mitt. Schilling on Lester: ''He's beyond his years as far as polish goes."
The Sox continued their offseason of reorganization, hiring John Fantauzzi as director of international scouting. They also announced another title change for Craig Shipley, who went into the offseason as special assistant to the GM for player development and international scouting. Upon Theo Epstein's return, Shipley was elevated to vice president of international scouting while retaining the title of special assistant to the GM. Now, he becomes vice president/professional and international scouting. Fantauzzi, 34, worked the last four years with the Mets as assistant director of minor league operations . . . In Damon, the Sox lost not only their leadoff hitter but also their representative on the executive board of the players union. Who will inherit that responsibility? ''It's looking like it's me right now," Trot Nixon said yesterday, sounding resigned to that fate. Still, Nixon added, ''We've got to vote on it." A related aside: Newcomer Mark Loretta is a significant presence within the union. Loretta and Tony Clark act as the senior leadership to the approximately 60-member player executive board . . . Position players report today. Mike Lowell and Alex Cora headlined yesterday's newcomers. Among players on the 40-man roster, that leaves only Loretta, Alex González, J.T. Snow, and Alejandro Machado still to come.