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For Papelbon, eyes have it

Red Sox rookie's look exudes confidence

Given Jonathan Papelbon’s high level of confidence since boyhood, those near the Red Sox rookie closer are not surprised to see him signing autographs during All-Star festivities at Pittsburgh.
Given Jonathan Papelbon’s high level of confidence since boyhood, those near the Red Sox rookie closer are not surprised to see him signing autographs during All-Star festivities at Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)

There is blood in Jonathan Papelbon's past. There is blood that seeped out, staining a front-yard basketball court with the soul of all three Papelbon boys, with their machismo and testosterone and fearlessness. There is blood that made a mother's heart flutter and set up a career all at once.

And there is blood behind his eyes, when his head dips, when the eyes emerge just below the barely curved hat brim, when all else suspends and the only person in the world is 60 feet 6 inches away.

The blood was Jeremy's or Josh's or sometimes even Jonathan's. It came not from viciousness, but from the want -- the need -- to be better than the others. Better than anyone.

``You should be a little easier on your brothers," Sheila Papelbon said she told her oldest, Jonathan. ``You shouldn't be so gung ho. You've got to remember who's there. But he didn't. He didn't care who he was facing, whether he should give a little bit, and be like, `Well, they're a little younger than me.' It didn't matter. It didn't matter to him."

Because he needed to win, even then. Because winning meant eating the last of the macaroni and cheese. Winning meant getting to the toy or the bathroom or 21 first. Winning meant recognition. For a kid who was sharing parents with younger twin brothers, winning meant everything.

And, in getting there, winning meant having no fear. Because Papelbon professes to fear nothing, to never have feared anything. Which, it seems, leaves fear only to batters, the ones who have scored only three earned runs this season, the ones with 25 hits and 47 strikeouts in 46 innings. The fear -- and respect -- that earned him the most votes among relievers from his peers and a spot on the American League team for tonight's All-Star Game.

``Fear is a tricky word," Papelbon said. ``I don't think that they fear me. I think they hopefully respect me. I definitely respect all the hitters, what they can do and what they bring to the batter's box. But I don't get intimidated. If I see a good hitter come up, that kind of motivates me more to get even better."

It's easy to see, when he steps to the mound, when he peers in at Jason Varitek, when he weighs each pitch and chooses. When he sets and throws. It's there and it's obvious.

``I've never been intimidated," Papelbon said. ``I like to be the intimidator. I like to go out there and have hitters not necessarily fear me, but go up there knowing that I'm not going to fear them. That I'm not going to give in to them."

That he will, most likely, blow them away.

He exhales as he makes the turn, his face moving from third base to home plate, his glove coming up, and those eyes staring in. There is concentration in that turn. There is command. There is ownership. There is one pitcher and one catcher and, according to Papelbon, no one else.

And that is exactly what a great closer needs.

``If you took away stuff, that's the million dollar question," said Don Kalkstein, the Red Sox' director of performance enhancement. ``Can you find a guy who has the ability to focus on his task and not a distraction or a consequence? I'm getting ready to throw to somebody and I'm saying, `That's David Ortiz, he's got a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark.' That's a distraction.

``Good pitchers, they focus on the task. Sinker in, I'm throwing a sinker in. Breaking ball down and away, I'm throwing a breaking ball down and away. It doesn't matter who the hitter is."

It matters who the pitcher is. Because they've all seen pitchers with fear. They've all seen pitchers who look out from the mound with concern clouding their eyes, without confidence in their arms. Those are the pitchers who pitch to fail, for whom success is a coincidence.

``I think the great closers are the ones that whenever they have no outs and men on base, the ones that are able to get out of the situation day in and day out, bow their neck when the situation comes up like that," Papelbon said.

``The ones that are just average, they tend to let those situations get the best of them more than they get the best of those situations.

``I think it's a heart thing. It's just you bear down on the hitters, you've got a couple guys on base, you bear down. It's just pride. Heart. I think it's just instilled in you from a young age, or not. I don't think it's something you develop. I think it's who you are, and that's it."

There was a moment, Sheila Papelbon said, when she knew.

Her son had spent his first year at Mississippi State, as a redshirt, learning how to pitch, beginning to convert his 185-pound infielder body into the solid 230-pound pitcher he would become.

From Jacksonville, Fla., where Jonathan spent most of his life, Sheila and John Papelbon watched Mississippi State take on Louisiana State, their alma mater. They watched Jonathan emerge from the bullpen at the start of the seventh inning for the first Southeastern Conference action of his young career. They watched him face one more than the minimum over three innings. They watched him strike out seven.

``He appears to not have any fear when he takes the ball," Varitek said. ``I think that he has the attitude to where if [he blows a save] once or twice, it might not happen a third time because he's going to go out there and try and will his way to being successful. His stuff has a lot to do with that because he has a pretty big margin of error because of the stuff that he has."

His stuff, sure. His fastball, slider, and splitter, a repertoire that lost a pitch when he shelved his curveball at the beginning of the season. But that's not all.

``He wants to be great," Varitek said. ``He wants to be great."

``If he doesn't perform at 100 percent and get the best result, then he'll be disappointed in himself," Sheila Papelbon said.

Kalkstein watches Papelbon as he arrives at the park, as he readies himself, performs a routine that has become rote, morphs from his frat-boy persona into the man who stands out there on the mound in the most pressure-filled moments of a game. Because, once focused, the ninth inning is his.

``Among the best [mentally]," said Kalkstein, who spent nine seasons with the Texas Rangers, working with, among others, John Wetteland.

``You see a guy who's dialed in, who has the ability to take a broad focus to a very narrow focus and remain there until his job's complete.

``That's all he wants to be. That's the role he looks forward to. That's the role he excels at. And every time he's put in that position, it's an opportunity for him to become successful again. Not an opportunity to fail."

There is brotherhood behind those eyes. There are fights and there is competition and there are wins and losses. But that misses much. That misses something significant. And then it becomes obvious. Because listening to Sheila Papelbon's words, all you need to know about her son becomes clear.

``I would be surprised if he didn't do well," she said. ``If he had a 3 ERA that, to me, would be bad.

``Knowing him, knowing what he can do, it doesn't surprise me at all. I don't think it surprises Jonathan at all. I think it's expected.

``I guess we expect perfection."

And, this season, that's almost what they're getting. From all of her sons.

It's not just Jonathan. It's Jeremy (11 1/3 innings with the Cubs' affiliate) and Josh (7 1/3 innings in Lowell), too, possessing 0.00 ERAs in their first few weeks of Single A ball. But, while it has never been automatic for her younger boys, Sheila Papelbon's oldest has always been better than everyone else. Mentally. Physically.

``He would just get so competitive," said Matt Griffis, a friend who has known Jonathan since fourth grade. ``He would just work people or he'd stop penalty kicks [in soccer] or he'd shut someone out. And then just start laughing. Not at the person. Just because he was having such a good time. It pissed people off to no end."

Still does. It's not exactly a happy feeling for those hitters who, after a round with Papelbon, walk back to the dugout shaking their heads.

It doesn't matter who they are. It doesn't matter if it's Joe Mauer or Jim Thome, if it's Derek Jeter or Ichiro Suzuki. All that matters, in the case of Papelbon, in the case of all closers, is themselves. Because if they can avoid all distraction, all sense of consequence, that is when they become great.

``I don't really get excited about a whole lot of things," Papelbon said. ``I don't really get all worked up over things here and there, about being in the big leagues or facing Alex Rodriguez. To me, that's just my job. To me, that's just great competition. That's just what I live for.

``I don't play the game because I make good money. I play the game because it gets my juices going, gets my competitiveness going. I play the game to win. Because I think I can go out there on any given day that I have the ball and beat somebody. That's why I play the game."

Audio THE SOX I KNOW / BOB RYAN: J. Papelbon
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