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Stern hits the right notes

As an audition for ''American Idol" -- setting aside the question of whether Simon Cowell would even consider a Canadian -- Adam Stern probably would never get past these judges.

Not after they witnessed Stern joining the Boston Children's Chorus during their pregame rendition of ''O Canada" yesterday at Fenway Park.

''No way he sang at that pitch," said Kevin Youkilis, who as Red Sox leadoff man was standing closest to the microphone during the ceremonies. ''He had to be lip-synching."

Coco Crisp, the aspiring record producer, tried to be charitable.

''I heard him before," said Crisp. ''Everyone has a voice. He has a voice like everyone else." But does he have a good voice? ''No," Crisp said.

But as someone trying to show he has the chops for regular playing time while Crisp, and now Trot Nixon, who strained his groin yesterday, recover from injuries, Stern has his own fan club. And it's growing bigger by the day. He started in Crisp's place in center field, delivered a two-run double, stole third, and scored in a four-run second inning that sent the Sox to a 5-3 win over Toronto in their home opener.

''I think Adam is a very good ballplayer," Nixon said. ''He's only going to get better hittingwise, the more at-bats he gets. He's got speed, he's got a great arm in the outfield, the sky's the limit for him. He's the kind of guy you don't want to get rid of because he might turn into something really special."

Stern is one of those roster oddities known as a Rule 5 player, which refers to an annual December draft in which a team can select a player not protected on the 40-man roster, provided they're willing to keep the player on the big-league roster for the next season. Because many Rule 5 picks have limited experience, like Stern, who had never played above Double A in the Atlanta system, teams will often go through contortions to keep a player while not giving up a spot on the 25-man roster, even if it means inventing an injury or placing a player on a much longer convalescence than he might require.

The Sox, of course, are above such chicanery. Not for us to question the four months it took Stern to recover from the fractured thumb he sustained last March, or that he sprained the same thumb in August. And no one fakes surgery, like that underwent by Stern to repair tears in the rotator cuff and labrum of his shoulder last September.

Stern was absent so much, in fact, that he came into this season still needing to spend 17 days on the Sox roster to satisfy the minimum 90 days required by baseball rules for a team to keep a Rule 5 player active. Short of that, the Sox would have been required to return him to the Braves, and clearly the Sox had seen enough of Stern to prefer that he stick around.

''I think he's handled the situation real well," manager Terry Francona said before the game. ''You're a Rule 5, it's almost, to the veteran players, like you're on scholarship. It's almost like sometimes I think that gets resented a little bit.

''[But] he's handled himself real well. He was quiet when he first came up, paid respect to the veterans, and slowly but surely started showing his personality."

He also has shown he can play. It started with his breakout game for Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March, when he had three hits, including a triple and home run, in a stunning upset of Team USA, a performance that inspired Nixon to call him the ''Canadian Babe Ruth" upon his return to Sox camp.

Francona said all spring he was eager to see what Stern would do with 500 at-bats playing every day in Pawtucket (once he satisfied the Rule 5 fine print), but that all changed when Crisp fractured the knuckle on his left index finger while sliding into third base in Baltimore Saturday night.

Stern started the next day, had a couple of hits and knocked in a couple of runs batting leadoff. Yesterday, with Youkilis in the 1-hole and Stern batting eighth, he came to the plate in the second inning with one run in and runners on second and third. Batting lefthanded, he reached out and sliced an outside pitch from Josh Towers down the left-field line as both runners scored, giving the Sox a 3-1 lead.

Then, on an 0-and-2 pitch and Towers neglecting to check the runner, Stern -- on his own -- bolted to third for a stolen base. He scored on Youkilis's double.

A lasting impression?

''Definitely," Crisp said. ''He has a great arm, above-average speed, good wheels on him, a good glove, a good hitter. Everything he needs to be a successful big leaguer."

Stern wasn't quite ready to embrace Francona's scholarship analogy, though. ''Scholarship? I'd like to know what kind of scholarship I'm on," he said.

But he embraces the opportunity to continue matriculating at the big-league level, where, according to Nixon, he could become a player capable of hitting 15-20 home runs and stealing 20-30 bases a season.

And you know what? Youkilis says his pipes are actually better than he got to show yesterday, when he deliberately kept his voice inaudible because it would have clashed so drastically with the kids' sopranos.

Stern says the team asks him to sing ''O Canada" just about once a road trip.

''When you're a rookie, you've got to sing something, your school song or fight song," Youkilis said. ''He sings 'O Canada.' He's actually pretty good. He throws stuff in there, instruments, the drums. He makes stuff up."

Which isn't bad for openers.

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