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SPRING TRAINING

Field event

Carter works on defense to track down a Sox spot

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / February 24, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - He arrives at the Red Sox training facility before the sun does, pulling into the parking lot around 5, greeting the overnight security guard and the clubhouse guys who are setting up for another day, then heading to the weight room while most of his teammates are still asleep.

"Figure I'll get my weight work in early, so I can get out of the way of the veterans," he says.

Long after the day's workout is ended, and the fans have collected their last autographs, he remains on a back field. Yesterday, it was with infield coach Luis Alicea, who hits one ground ball after another to him at first base while Dave Magadan, the hitting coach, takes his throws at second base. On other days, he is with DeMarlo Hale, the outfield coach, who sets the pitching machine to launch fly balls for him to track down against the high southwest Florida sky.

His red warm-up shirt is soaked through with sweat. "This is the way I want it," he says.

Chris Carter, No. 77 on your spring training program, came to the Red Sox in last August's Wily Mo Peña deal by way of the Washington Nationals, who first had to swing a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks to acquire him for the Sox. Carter was playing for the Tucson Sidewinders, Arizona's Triple A team, when friends told him his name had popped up in a newspaper report that he was bound for the Sox.

"Someone told me, 'Have you heard anything about going to Boston? It's in the paper,' " he said. "I said, 'No, no way.' Then I got a call from [Red Sox general manager] Theo [Epstein] early one morning, must have been three days later, telling me, 'We're glad to have you.' "

Like Peña, the player for whom he was traded, Carter's appeal is in his bat, though at 5 feet 10 inches and 210 pounds, he does not have the raw power of the hulking Wily Mo, who David Ortiz said could hit a baseball harder than anyone he's ever seen.

Early success
A 17th-round draft choice out of Stanford in 2004, the lefthanded-hitting Carter jumped from Single A ball to Triple A in a year, and he hit over .300 in each of his last two seasons with Tucson, where he served primarily as the cleanup hitter.

Home runs? In 2005, which he split between Single A Lancaster (and its jet-propulsion-force winds) and Tennessee, Carter led all Arizona minor leaguers with 31 home runs. In each of the last two seasons, he has hit 19 home runs, including one in the dozen games he played for Pawtucket after the Sox traded for him.

But like Peña, Carter arrives with the reputation of being defensively challenged, which accounts for his long days here.

In Arizona, where Tucson manager Bill Plummer said he worked harder than anyone else, Carter played first base, but last summer Plummer admitted he didn't know whether Carter would ever be able to play the position in the big leagues. The Sox, who primarily are working him in left field during regular workouts, concede they're uncertain whether he can handle that position, either.

Designated hitter, especially now that he is in the American League, offers a logical solution, but Ortiz is not expected to surrender that role any time soon.

But since being one of the most sought-after players in the country after starring at De la Salle High in Concord, Calif. - Baseball America ranked him No. 8 on its list of top prep players - Carter has encountered more resistance than encouragement in trying to advance his game. He was voted most valuable freshman at Stanford, then underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder that set him back for much of the next season and left him with a weak throwing arm.

Then there was some friction with the coaching staff, which had decided that not only was he a defensive liability, but he couldn't hit lefthanders or offspeed pitching, and he wouldn't allow the coaches to remake his swing.

College was not a total washout - a biology major, he earned his degree in 3 1/4 years - but he wound up spending frustrating stretches on the bench. Because of that and the labels he'd accrued, his stock dropped before the draft and he lasted until the 17th round.

Blocked in Arizona
In Arizona, he was caught behind some of the Diamondbacks' top young talent, including Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy, so the trade to Boston was not unwelcome.

His father, Bill, grew up in Ohio and was a huge Sox fan, making trips to Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium to see his idols, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. Carter made it to Fenway during a summer of playing for Yarmouth in the Cape Cod League, where he held a summer job raking seaweed on the beach.

"When I was a little kid, I thought about one day playing for the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Cubs, and now that could happen," he said. "That's cool."

He went to Venezuela for three months to play this winter, in part because he needed the cash, but more to try and show the Sox how hard he was willing to push to make the club. He played in the capital, Caracas, and stayed in a hotel where many mornings he was awakened by political demonstrations both for and against president Hugo Chavez.

"I remember after he lost the reform vote, he smashed his hand," Carter said. "He was on TV every night, sometimes for an hour, hour and a half a night. One of the World Series games was cut off when he came on the air."

A newfound passion
But Venezuela awakened some unexpected passion, on and off the field, for Carter. He fell in love with the culture, he said, and met a beautiful woman who kept him out of harm's way on streets that tended to become dangerous after dark. And he found himself caught up in the wave of enthusiasm that engulfed his team, La Guaira, which he helped lead to a playoff spot for the first time in years. He had to leave before the playoffs began, but he was an all-star and wound up batting .336, which would have ranked third if he'd had enough at-bats to qualify.

"I think I'm a better, richer person as far as understanding the world," he said. "And people there absolutely love their baseball. It was almost like a rock star. People would line up to shake your hand and say, 'Hey, man, thank you.' I played my butt off for these people. Before, it was like a job, but that became my team."

Now, he is trying to make the Red Sox his team, which is why he shows up under the cover of darkness and leaves when the sun is at its highest point. At 25, he admits the prospect of returning to Triple A for a third season is a daunting one.

"All I really want is an opportunity, a fair shot," he said, "and I think I have one here. I feel good about it. We'll see what happens. There may not be an opening right now, and if there isn't, and someone plays better than me, I have to be a man and accept it.

"I'm very positive. I've had to be the last seven years. You hear all those things about how bad you are, it's tough to block out. But I think I've become much stronger mentally because of it."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com.

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