EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 20, 2007

The man who was once Manny

On Baseball , Rob Bradford

FORT MYERS, Fla. - According to Julian Tavarez, Manny Ramirez is not coming to spring training until March 1, the mandatory report date for all players according to the collective bargaining agreement. The reliever insists that his friend of more than 15 years will be staying on the state's East Coast to tend to his sick mother.

Other than Ramirez (who would be tardy for the second straight season), showing up a week late for camp might be foreign territory. But there is an outfielder in the Red Sox camp who is no stranger to the drill - and he had Boston to blame.

The player also knows what it is like to face Daisuke Matsuzaka better than anybody else in town, while being intimately familiar with the kind of craziness that has come with this Red Sox spring training.

Alex Ochoa, a minor league free agent with the Sox, has some story to tell that jibes with just about every major story line up and down Edison Avenue.

"This isn't out of the ordinary for me at all," he said.

It starts with the first time the 34-year-old Ochoa entered himself into the fabric of Red Sox lore. In February 2003, he became the man to put the exclamation point on the Kevin Millar international incident. After Boston put its controversial waiver claim on Millar, preventing the first baseman from heading to Japan, Ochoa was the player the Chunichi Dragons chose to bring in to replace their lost import.

Ochoa, a top prospect with the Mets in the mid-1990s, was all set to report to the St. Louis Cardinals camp after spending '02 with both the Brewers and the Angels. But when Millar was finally granted his release from any commitment to Chunichi, Ochoa was presented with a much more lucrative option.

So, days after the early-February Japanese spring training reporting date had come and gone, Ochoa showed up for what would be a four-season journey.

"I left the 21st of February and I think I decided four days before that," Ochoa said. "They asked me to be there as soon as possible, but I needed at least four or five days to get ready. My whole mind-set changed. Chunichi was very embarrassed by the whole situation. It was interesting because I didn't know the situation, in a lot of ways. I heard the rumblings here and there how Millar disgraced himself and all of that. But he did me a huge favor."

The difference of Millar bailing out of his agreement with the Dragons was Ochoa making $2 million a year in each of his first two seasons, and a total of $6 million in his final two campaigns with Chunichi.

As much of a financial windfall as Millar presented Ochoa, the change was also fraught with peculiarities and challenges.

There were the obvious cultural differences, pointed out recently by former big league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, who told the Associated Press of his recent introduction to Japanese spring training, "Before you board one of the buses, you have a very important decision to make. This decision is one no American ballplayer in my generation has ever had to make - get on the smoking or nonsmoking bus. About 40 percent of the players smoke."

But it was the on-field sights and sounds which really threw Ochoa for a loop initially. Like on one of his very first workouts when a coach knelt just feet in front of a batter, with no screen or other kind of protection, and just lobbed in soft tosses for hitting practice.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "He (the batter) messes up and the coach is done. But they expect perfection, so they don't worry about it."

Then came the challenges, which was exemplified in Ochoa's second season with the Dragons in which he got a taste of facing Matsuzaka in the Japanese World Series. The two had faced off briefly the season before in spring training, but this time the Seibu Lions ace wasn't holding back.

"Oh, he's good," said Ochoa with emphasis, even after estimating he had notched three hits in nine at-bats against Matsuzaka. "He has command of four pitches. The thing is that he throws so hard, but his other pitches are good pitches. You can't sit on anything.

"The whole mind-set is different. They don't mind pitching behind in counts. They don't mind throwing breaking balls in different counts. They don't mind walking you. I think I became a better player because of it, but we're going to have to see how it translates."

Ochoa did walk into the Red Sox clubhouse a changed man from the image of the failed prospect he left behind four years ago. In 550 games with the Dragons, the strong-armed center fielder totaled 75 home runs and a .283 batting average, hitting .273 with 15 homers last season.

But Ochoa also came in with this - he knows what it's like to enter spring training in the style of Manny Ramirez.

Rob Bradford covers the Red Sox for Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company.