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Tavarez: one strike, one brawl

Sox reliever punches a D-Ray in latest fracas

Sox pitcher Julian Tavarez is set to hit Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright in the jaw yesterday on a play at the plate in the eighth inning.
Sox pitcher Julian Tavarez is set to hit Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright in the jaw yesterday on a play at the plate in the eighth inning. (AP Photo)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There have been enough brawls, suspensions, and mandated sensitivity classes in enough different uniforms to suspect that Julián Tavárez's past might catch up with him.

But for the new Red Sox reliever to invite yet another suspension for punching Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright after a tag play at the plate yesterday, just six days after appearing in his first game in a Red Sox uniform and only a week before the start of the regular season? Considering that the Red Sox only in January awarded Tavárez a contract that ranks among the best in the game for a setup man -- two years at $6.7 million -- trouble kept its appointment with Tavárez probably much sooner than the club expected.

''What do you mean, 'regret'?" Tavarez said when asked if he was sorry he hit Gathright with a blow to the jaw in the eighth inning of a 12-11 win over the Devil Rays, adding another line to the rap sheet of scrums between these clubs. ''I wish I don't have to [throw a punch], because I'm not here to fight, you know. Little things happen in baseball, you know. No big deal."

Incensed at what Gathright's teammate, Carl Crawford, called a sucker punch, delivered with Gathright on one knee and trying to push away Tavárez's left leg that was planted on his right forearm (''I can show you the marks," said Gathright, who did just that for reporters), the D-Rays expect that baseball disciplinarian Bob Watson will view the incident with more gravity than Tavárez did.

''I think that may require a suspension, absolutely," said Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay manager who is replacing Lou Piniella, accused by Curt Schilling last season of fomenting some of the bad blood between the teams. ''That kind of action cannot be tolerated, and I don't want any of our guys ever doing anything like that, I know that."

As a first-year manager, Maddon might be new to this suspension business, but Tavarez certainly isn't. In brawls going back 10 years, including another spring-training flareup in which he karate-kicked an opponent, Tavárez has been suspended three times, each time wearing a different uniform: First with the Indians, in 1996; five years later with the Cubs; and then in 2003, when he was with the Pirates and mixed it up for the first time with the D-Rays. In 2004, with the Cardinals, he also was suspended 10 games for putting an illegal substance (pine tar) on his cap.

Later that same year, during Game 4 of the NLCS, Tavarez punched a dugout telephone and broke bones in two fingers of his left (nonthrowing) hand. He also threw a ball behind the head of Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell, for which he was fined $10,000 by Major League Baseball.

To round out his dance card of baseball crimes and misdemeanors, Tavárez, while with the Giants, was punished for what came out of his mouth in 2001, when in response to a question about the team's fans, he said, ''Why should I care about the fans? They are nothing but a bunch of [expletives] and [pejorative term for gays]." That was when he was ordered to his first round of sensitivity classes.

Tavarez, whose Sox debut was delayed by his participation in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic, acknowledged that a visit from Watson may be in the offing.

''I don't know what's going to happen," he said. ''But Major League Baseball, they make a decision, nothing you can do about it. I hope nothing happens, you know."

According to Tavárez, who calmly discussed the incident with reporters (he admitted throwing the punch and stepping on Gathright's forearm), Gathright and Crawford were interested in meting out their own brand of justice. At least that was the message he received while players from both clubs, after separating the two principals, were milling about their dugouts.

''Yeah, they were yelling at me, 'Let's get one and one in the parking lot,' " Tavárez said. ''I'm not going to fight, man. What happened is happened, it's over, and I'm not going to fight nobody.

''You try to fight, you're Mike Tyson. He's a fighter, not me. He might wait for them in the parking lot. Not me."

Tavarez denied that he was frustrated by what preceded the punch, an inning in which he hit the second batter, Nick Green, watched minor league shortstop Keoni De Renne mishandle a force play at second, then made a wild throw to first that allowed Gathright to reach second while a run scored.

''No, no, I wasn't," he said. ''That's not the first time it happened [a throwing error] and won't be the last time. That's the way things go."

Tavárez, whose first pitch to Julio Lugo was high and tight, actually made an alert play after Lugo's single and the subsequent throw to the plate from left fielder Willy Mota. Catcher Ken Huckaby, seeing that Lugo was hung up halfway between first and second, advanced on the runner while keeping an eye on Gathright, lurking off third. Huckaby threw to the kid playing second, Zach Borowiak. As soon as he did, Gathright broke for the plate, which Tavárez had covered in Huckaby's absence. Borowiak double-clutched, then threw a strike to Tavárez, who applied the tag.

It was after the tag that Tavárez, looking down at the player, stepped on Gathright's arm. Angry?

''I wasn't angry," he said. ''I saw his reaction, you know. His reaction. He tried to get [off] the ground. He was like, 'Hey man,' like he was coming up, you know, and I threw a punch."

Gathright, who said the punch only grazed his jaw as he tried to climb to his feet, mocked it afterward. ''He hits like a woman," Gathright said.

The punch was delivered with sufficient force to knock off Gathright's helmet. Tavárez, his glove stuck in the face of the now upright Gathright, attempted another blow, which appeared to glance off the Devil Ray's shoulder. That's when Crawford and Devil Rays first baseman Greg Norton rushed to the scene, Norton body-slamming Tavárez to the ground, with one Devil Ray (Gathright) beneath them and another (Crawford) on Norton's back.

Players from both teams then rushed in, Sox reliever Jonathan Papelbon all the way from the bullpen, behind the stands, arriving in time to pull Gathright out of the pack and hold him. Trent Durrington, the Sox' resident Aussie, found himself at one point at the bottom of the mudpile. (''A bit of a wank," Durrington told reporters afterward, using a native idiom for ''show.")

Gathright and Tavárez were both ejected. Sox manager Terry Francona was just relieved that no one got hurt.

''That's what really worries you, is somebody getting hurt, somebody losing time," he said.

The possibility that Tavárez will lose time? ''I don't know what's going to happen," he said. ''They make decisions. I hope nothing happens."

Tavárez, meanwhile, said he hopes that people understand that while he gets emotional on the field and ''little things go south, little things then grow big," he's a different guy. ''In the clubhouse and on the outside, I'm cool with everybody.

''I'm not mad at myself. I love myself, bro. Why should I be mad at myself?"

Especially when there were more pressing matters at hand.

''I'm hungry," he said, bringing the interview to a close. ''I gotta go eat."

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