As host of the New York Baseball Writers dinner last Sunday at the New York Hilton, Newark Star-Ledger columnist Dan Graziano was pointing out celebrities in the crowd when one introduction struck a chord.
"From the Boston Red Sox . . . Jonathan Papelbon."
The crowd of 1,100 booed in unison.
"I was shocked," Papelbon said. "I just sat there. I never got up out of my seat. No lie, the whole convention center was booing me. This was a black-tie event, and I was like . . . wow!"
Papelbon, one of the most polite young players in baseball, stayed until the end of the award ceremonies and then sneaked off into the Gotham night, escaping further hostility.
It was a sure sign that Papelbon is a Yankee villain.
"I think it was an acknowledgment about how good he is," said Orioles vice president Jim Duquette, who sat next to Papelbon. "He actually had a smile on his face. He knew what it meant. The funny thing is afterward all the people who booed him were trying to get his autograph."
For all the talk that the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is one-sided, this was proof that Yankees fans hate the Red Sox just as much as Red Sox fans hate the Yankees. Why not hate the guy who was the closest rival Mariano Rivera has had in years, the kid who came out of nowhere to save 35 games in dominating fashion?
The next morning before the sun had crept through the city skyline, Papelbon was filming the first national commercial of his professional career. He was at a closed-off city block of Manhattan by 6 a.m., standing with American League Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, AL MVP Justin Morneau, AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, World Series MVP Dave Eckstein, and Jose Reyes -- waiting for instruction for a New Era commercial produced by Spike Lee on behalf of Major League Baseball.
Jonathan Papelbon, one of three children of John and Sheila Papelbon, had finally gone showbiz.
"It was really a lot of fun," Papelbon said. "We were there until about 1 p.m. They closed off the streets and it was amazing to watch it. Spike Lee was all business. For him, time was money, and he got us through it in what was a pretty funny skit. I got to kid around with Spike and we were going back and forth about Boston. I invited him up there, but I don't think he likes Boston too much."
If he's hit the big time, Papelbon is embracing it. The people closest to him, such as younger brother Jeremy, a Chicago Cubs farmhand, said he is "a lot harder to get in touch with, but he's still the same grounded person, laid-back, nice to everybody. That's Jonathan. I don't think that's ever gonna change."
Papelbon bought his twin brothers Jeremy and Joshua, a reliever in the Red Sox system, a condo in Jacksonville, Fla., where Jonathan lives part of the year with his wife, Ashley, when they're not in Mississippi.
Papelbon acknowledges that people recognize him more. It's hard for him to walk through the mall without being stopped or asked to sign an autograph or pose for a picture. He can't walk into a restaurant and eat undisturbed.
The price of fame.
"I'm fine with all of it," Papelbon said. "I've made more appearances, but I'm just trying to go out there and be myself and have some fun with it. Going to hospitals and stuff like that has been great to do. Endorsements like Reebok, the commercials. All fun. I envisioned there'd be a situation where you need to take advantage of things when we have a chance to experience them because it doesn't last forever. So I'm trying to do that now. I try to be a people person as much as I can. I'm not playing only for myself, but I'm playing for a city and fans who watch me."
The change was brought on by the fact that he suffered a subluxation of his right shoulder Sept. 1, ending his season prematurely. The Red Sox medical staff, as well as his personal physician and one provided by agents Scott and Sam Levinson, concurred it might be easier on his arm if he started every fifth day rather than endure the rigors of getting up and down in the bullpen and pitching frequently on short notice.
What's not true is that Papelbon is prohibited from returning to his closer role.
Papelbon was told that by pitching every fifth day he'll be able to continue to strengthen his shoulder through a preventative program designed by Sox physician Thomas Gill.
As a reliever it would be more difficult for Papelbon to stay on a strength program because he'd be pitching much more frequently. But the Sox have put him on the same in-season program they gave Josh Beckett, who was able to work 200 innings for the first time in his career last season.
The day after Papelbon starts he'll recuperate with light exercise and running. The next day he will do some strength work with weights, and on the third and fourth days he will throw on the side, leading up to his start on the fifth day.
This routine should keep the shoulder strong, though the doctors have said a subluxation could occur again. But if the shoulder and surrounding areas are strengthened, the chances of a repeat aren't as great and the recovery would be quicker.
While closing has brought him notoriety, starting has always been his dream. Papelbon has always wanted to emulate his hero, Roger Clemens.
Yet many fans and baseball people wonder why the Red Sox would opt for such a drastic move with lights-out closers in such demand. The Red Sox say they will hold a competition for the role, which could go to recent free agent signee Joel Pineiro, a player they hope will make a successful conversion from starter to closer.
Papelbon is rooting for someone to step up.
"I think one of those guys will take the job," he said confidently. "There's a lot of talent out there. It's a tough job. It's a pressure job, but it can be a lot of fun when you're going good. I had a blast. It's one of those things where it's the ninth inning, the hitter has already had two or three at-bats and he's in a rhythm, and you've got to get him out. It's not easy."
The other concern is building up his arm strength to the point that he can be the workhorse starter the Sox envision. His highest inning total was 148 in 2005 between Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston.
Former Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, now Houston's pitching coach, thinks Papelbon will make the transition because "it's not uncharted waters for him. He's been a starter and gone to the closing role. I think with any pitcher in that situation it's a matter of building up 30 starts and hopefully 200 innings. But he's a very determined kid who loves to pitch, so I think he's going to be able to do it."
Joshua Papelbon doesn't think it will be a problem.
"He's so big and strong," Joshua said. "I know he can do it. His shoulder is unbelievably strong. I was up in Boston last week and I went through his routine. He's doing all of that weight work to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder and I tried to do it and my shoulder was aching. Jonathan can do those exercises like it's nothing."
Red Sox fans will miss the Wild Thing coming out of the bullpen with enough adrenaline flowing for 25 guys. The fist pumping and enthusiasm he showed on the mound will have to be curtailed. But Papelbon thinks while you can take the starter out of the closer, you might not be able to take the closer out of the starter.
"Those four days in between are for preparation," he said. "On that fifth day, I'm going to go out there and pitch with my heart as well as with my head. On that fifth day I'm going to lay everything I have on a line. Instead of doing it every other day or every day, I'll have that same intensity out there every fifth day. That's just the way I am and it's the way I pitch."
Looking back, Papelbon said his success wasn't a surprise, but in fact was what he expected.
"I always envisioned being able to do that," he said. "Obviously, it came to a halt with the arm injury, but ever since I was a little kid I envisioned being able to do great things out there. So, accomplishing those things is something I always thought I could accomplish. I've always set my goals very, very high. I don't necessarily reach them -- in fact, I missed my goal a little bit."
Not wanting to reveal what that goal was, Papelbon said he wouldn't have changed a thing about his approach.
"The hardest thing for any major league baseball player is to go out there day in and day out and give a top performance," Papelbon said. "You don't feel great every day, but you have to put that aside and give it your best so you don't let your teammates, the fans, and yourself down. I wouldn't have changed any of it. I get to pitch every day I play the game that I love. I would never complain about anything like that. Who knows, if something was different it would have changed the course of things, so I'm glad with the way everything went down."
"There are a lot of pitchers I know whose goal it is to be a closer. Or to be a middle reliever," he said. "For me, my entire makeup is to be a starting pitcher. That's what I know. Since I've been in the Red Sox organization, I've been a starter until last year."
If he had to return to the bullpen?
"No, man, I wouldn't be disappointed. I'm just going to take it one day at a time. If the situation comes up and it's good for the team, I'll do it."
Besides expanding innings, Papelbon will have to expand his repertoire. He stuck mostly to his fastball and split as a closer, but now he's ready to break out his curveball, his slider, and a two-seam fastball.
"I've thrown a couple of [bullpen sessions] and I was throwing a lot of two-seam fastballs," said Papelbon. "It felt so good to throw that pitch again. I remember the last time I threw it was one of my last starts in spring training, when I pitched six innings against the Yankees and I threw it pretty well. I have a curveball, you know, that I can maybe throw once in a while and get guys to offer. I'm happy with my split. It's just a matter of going out there and gaining the confidence against major league hitters."
What's most important to Papelbon is to be as good a starter as he was a reliever. He wants to be a workhorse who can save the bullpen. "I'm the type of guy who wants to push himself every time I'm out there," he said. "I want to see and test my body to see what it can take."
While he has yet to master rotaries and he loathes Boston drivers, he loves the experience of Boston, the banged-out ballpark, and the ovation he'd receive when he would run out of the bullpen.
As a result of his accomplishments, he's rubbing elbows with Spike Lee and is now a certified villain in New York.
And now he's putting himself in a vulnerable position: switching jobs at the height of his success.
"Pitching is pitching," he said with a shrug.
And while his celebrity grows, Papelbon insisted, "I enjoy my life the way it is. My life isn't going to change."