THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Sox-Yankees: Tranquillity vs. trauma

By Nick Cafardo
February 13, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The calm and the chaos - the tale of the Red Sox and Yankees.

But does it really matter in mid-February that the Red Sox seem a sea of tranquillity compared with the Yankees and the turmoil they are about to endure with L'Affaire A-Roid? The fact is these are the two elite teams in baseball.

As pitchers and catchers reported to the Sox' minor league complex yesterday, the atmospheres of the rival camps will be diametrically different. As Terry Francona and Theo Epstein addressed the Red Sox media, you wouldn't have been surprised to see a cocktail waitress carrying a frozen drink with an umbrella. When Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi address the Yankees media, you might see a few men in white coats carrying straitjackets.

There's plenty of time for things to fall apart, but right now the Red Sox are on Easy Street compared with the Yankees.

It will be all A-Rod all the time. The best break the Yankees might get is when Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to taking a banned substance that caused him to fail a 2003 steroids test, heads to the World Baseball Classic to play for the Dominican Republic. If that commitment is still a go, Rodriguez will draw major attention from the media and the Yankees won't be bothered.

That's the best they can hope for.

At the Yankee complex in Tampa, reporters are pouring into the minor league facility awaiting Rodriguez. It will be the Bronx Zoo, Tampa style. And while the Yankees have always been built to endure controversy and the usual chaos that has been a staple of George Steinbrenner teams, the revelation of Rodriguez's steroid use will likely unsettle a team that had been buoyed by an offseason in which Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett were signed to rebuild a sagging offense and an injury-plagued pitching staff.

Has all that been undone? Of course not. Controversies always pass.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox started things yesterday with no real worries.

Oh, there's the shortstop competition between Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo and the arrival of captain Jason Varitek today. There'll be questions about David Ortiz's wrist and Mike Lowell's hip and how much Rocco Baldelli can play. There'll be a question or two about John Smoltz and when he'll be ready or whether the absence of Daisuke Matsuzaka until after his commitment for Japan in the WBC will have an effect.

But think about the pluses.

There's no Manny Ramírez controversy (save for Manny's new book, in which he and his wife depict themselves as victims in the Jack McCormick incident). No drama about whether Curt Schilling will be able to pitch.

Francona and Epstein will get long looks at youngsters like Lars Anderson, Daniel Bard, and Michael Bowden. There'll be a spotlight on Jacoby Ellsbury to emerge as the leadoff hitter/center fielder and premier base stealer. This is all normal, good, competitive baseball stuff.

"Some years there's some issue, or potential for distraction, and we say, 'It's not that big of a deal,' and then we go through 30 exhibition games and it's not a big deal," said Epstein. "Distractions . . . they rarely get inside the clubhouse. Nice to have peace and tranquillity on Day 1."

Oh, there'll be a murmur about whether Lowell's feelings were hurt because the team tried so hard to acquire Teixeira and whether Varitek is resentful because of his pay cut.

"I stayed in touch with Mike Lowell the whole winter," said Francona. "Even when it was a little uncomfortable and he didn't want to hear from me. The best way to handle that is with honesty. He'll be fine."

Epstein added that the team received an update on Lowell Wednesday, and "he's not experiencing any pain or any symptoms and he's doing some baseball activities. He hasn't really run yet full-fledged, and that's going to be an important step for him, but he's hitting and doing some other baseball activities.

"We're going to take it slow," added Epstein. "We're going to hold him back. We're not focused on what he looks like on the report date or when the first exhibition date happens. The whole rehab is built around the proper timetable, which happens to coincide with getting him ready for Opening Day."

There's also the Lowrie-Lugo competition. Lugo lost his job to the rookie after he hurt his quadriceps and Lowrie seemed to respond. The Sox' attempt to trade Lugo and his contract ($18 million remaining over two years) failed, so Lugo is back after devoting the offseason to conditioning. Lowrie would appear to be better suited as the super sub.

"I don't know how it's going to be," said Francona. "We'll sit down with both next week. We hope that both play great. It's not an unfair question, but there's no way to have an answer right now. Those things have a way of working out. It's amazing how it'll figure itself out."

All of it is small potatoes compared with what the men in pinstripes face.

Sometimes, of course, adversity can bring a team together, and while his teammates have never been close to A-Rod, the sympathy factor for him among Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada, the bona fide leaders of the team, is pretty high.

The Red Sox rid themselves of their polarizing figure - Ramírez.

For the Sox, the only issue is getting through the season with their health intact, as Epstein expressed.

"Health more than anything else," he said. "We're talented and deep. We play in a challenging division, so we have to play at a high level. Every year, we talk about how good this division is, and it seems like it gets stronger and stronger. Someone came out with projections the other day that the three best teams in baseball were Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay. That remains to be seen. You have to prove that. It doesn't really matter how it looks on paper. It's the most challenging division, but we relish that, too. We have to be an outstanding club and avoid a lot of valleys during the season, win our 95 games, and get to the postseason."

While the Yankees are putting out fires, the Red Sox will be igniting dreams in young players. We remember top prospects in spring training in the past - Hanley Ramírez, Dustin Pedroia, Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis.

"There are some younger kids who will see a lot of action who don't need to make our club right now," said Francona. "But that still doesn't make camp less exciting. It will be fun to watch them and see how they handle themselves."

It is a tranquil start to what should be a tranquil camp.

The calm and the chaos.

Which one will produce a winner in October?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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