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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Drew: Happiness, hope on the diamond

By Gordon Edes

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Big Mac and little Jack. The massive slugger, larger than life. The vulnerable child, as precious as life itself.

Unlikely bookends, this pair, for J.D. Drew, when he contemplates his career in the big leagues, and the perspective that can be gained not only from a dugout seat witnessing history on his first day in the majors, but from a hometown batting cage where innocence can reveal wisdom.

J.D. Drew feels happy for Mark McGwire, that Big Mac is back in the game he loves. Drew remains hopeful for his 4-year-old son, Jack, that he will one day be able to walk as tall as his father.

"My first game," Drew says, "was when Mac hit No. 62."

It was baseball's summer of love, 1998, when a nation was enthralled by the home run duel being waged by McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both of whom had Roger Maris and his record 61 homers in their sights.

Drew and his buddy Mark Little were in Triple-A Memphis when the call came to report to the St. Louis Cardinals in time for the next day's game. They drove the 284 miles to St. Louis and were sitting together on the bench in Busch Stadium, the one since torn down, when McGwire came to the plate in the fourth inning. Steve Trachsel of the Cubs was on the mound. It was Sept. 8, 1998.

"He comes up and whack, hits that ball down the line," Drew says, relating the story on one quiet morning here. "Everyone is jumping around me and Mark, and I'm saying, 'Whew, we're not getting in the lineup today.' We're thinking [manager Tony] La Russa's going to try and get all the veterans on the lineup card."

Imagine Drew's surprise, then, when La Russa sent word that the 22-year-old rookie was going to bat for the pitcher the next inning. Nervous?

"I run down to get my bat," Drew says. "There was a little tee, I'll never forget. This tee had a bunch of slots in it, so you could move it around, and they had these little baseballs about this big that you could hit off the tee. I put a baseball on it and went wham. I hit the tee, the tee flew into the net and the baseball fell right down at my feet."

The at-bat didn't go much better. Drew ran the count full, then guessed that Trachsel would throw him a splitter. The way the pitch was diving, Drew decided that if the pitch was middle and away, he was going to lay off it. Just as he thought, here came the splitter, well off the plate. Drew dropped the bat -- and heard the umpire call "Strike three."

Twelve years later, the memory still elicits disgust. "Terrible call," he says.

The next day, the Cardinals were in Cincinnati, playing the Reds before a packed house. Before the game, La Russa told Drew that McGwire would take one or two at-bats, then Drew would replace him. You can imagine how the crowd reacted when Drew entered the game in a double switch and came to bat when the crowd was expecting Big Mac. Drew already was a bit of a fan target, because of his protracted contract squabble with the Phillies the year before, and the jeers grew even louder when Drew took a called third strike.

He would have one more at-bat that day, against Gabe White, a hard-throwing left-hander who lit up the radar gun at 97, 98 mph. Drew would hear later that in the meeting in which Reds pitchers went over Cardinals hitters and they got to Drew, White said, "Don't worry about going over him. Give me the ball when he comes in, and I'll take care of him."

Sure enough, White was on the mound when Drew came to the plate. He fell behind the rookie 2-0, then threw a fastball that Drew let go, immediately chiding himself for not swinging. The next pitch, another fastball, Drew was ready.

"Bam," he said. "It felt really heavy when it hit my bat. I had my head down, and when I looked up, that ball was 486 feet. A bomb. I watched videos afterward. It was 98 miles an hour, middle and slicing away, and I caught it perfect. That was great."

JD Drew, Mark McGwire
J.D. Drew, in his first month in the major leagues, congratulates Mark McGwire after McGwire's 68th home run in his record-setting 1998 season.

Drew had a great first month in the majors, hitting .417 with five home runs in 14 games, playing terrific defense. Hardly anyone noticed, though, because of McGwire, who did not stop at 62, finishing his record-breaking season by becoming the first player to hit 70 home runs.

But Drew didn't entirely escape the spotlight. Seemed like every time McGwire homered, Drew was hitting behind him or in front of him, and the cameras were clicking when Big Mac celebrated by trading his trademark punches with Drew. The rookie shyly asked McGwire to sign one or two of those photos for him.

"Mac would take his memorabilia, he would wear spikes for five games, then sign them, 'To J.D., home runs 55, 56, 57, 58' and sign his name. He'd do it for everybody in the clubhouse.

"Or he'd give somebody his hat and sign it, or his batting gloves. He's making history, and instead of selling it or whatever, he's taking care of all the guys. Then he signed a dozen balls on the sweet spot for everybody on the team before the end of the season. There were like 50 guys, counting coaches."

McGwire had a whole room, Drew said, in which he kept the stuff sent over by visiting players asking for souvenirs. "I remember him sitting in the hot tub, icing his knees and signing autographs," Drew said. "He'd come in early to do it."

Drew would play three more seasons with McGwire, who at the end was crippled with patellar tendinitis. Then McGwire disappeared, becoming a Salinger-like recluse as the accusations of steroid use grew louder and louder.

Drew said he didn't know. "I've been a clean-living person all my life, and people knew that," he said. "That's the way my parents raised me. I didn't have the desire for that kind of stuff."

This winter, as a condition to returning to the Cardinals as batting coach, McGwire owned up to his steroid use.

"I'm glad he came out and said what he did," Drew said. "I wish he'd come out earlier. But he was in an era where pretty much everyone was doing it. How do you judge him? How many guys that he was taking deep were doing the same thing?"

It was jarring to Drew, when the Red Sox went to Jupiter earlier this spring to play the Cardinals, how few familiar faces were there. Your first team, he said, always remains special, and it's a measure of how long he has played that he has now spent more time with teams other than the Cardinals.

"I'm pretty excited for Mac," he said. "I think coaching will open him up to players. He used to be kind of reserved. He had a couple of friends that he hung out with. Now he's going to have to interact with everybody.

"And he's smart with hitting. He had drills and thoughts on hitting that we never knew, because he didn't talk about it. He'd be in the cage, doing his work, chewing on his bottle caps, and every once in a while he'd say, 'If you'd do this, it would help you.' Dang, don't be afraid to tell me. You only hit 70 home runs."

JD Drew
J.D. Drew sits with his son before the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.

Twelve years in the big leagues, more than 5,200 plate appearances, and there are still lessons to be learned. Which brings us back to little Jack -- Jack David Drew. In 2007, Drew's first season with the Boston Red Sox, Jack Drew underwent six hours of surgery for dysplasia in his hip joints, a condition affecting less than 1 percent of all children. It means essentially that both hips were dislocated, and little Jack had to spend eight weeks in a body cast, agony not only for the then-17-month-old toddler, but for J.D. and his wife, Sheigh.

Little Jack is doing better now, his father says, although his left hip is more mobile than his right, and some tasks that come easy for other little boys, like bending down and putting on their shoes, are a chore for him. There will be more X-rays back in Boston in April, Drew says, and he can't rule out another surgery. In hopes of avoiding that, Drew bought an electromagnetic machine for Jack, which he sits in every day and is supposed to help the blood flow in his hip and help the bone form properly.

Even still, little Jack will pick up a bat and swing when his daddy pitches to him, and a few times this winter, he went to the batting cage with Drew and Drew's brother Stephen, the Diamondbacks' shortstop, who would have one of their high school coaches throw balls to them.

"He'd never really seen anyone throw balls to me and me hit them one after another," Drew said. "So it was kind of funny, he's standing over there on the side, and every time I hit the ball, he's going, 'Good hit, Dad. Wow.'

"He couldn't believe it that every swing, I hit it, because he doesn't hit it with every swing. He's thinking, it doesn't matter where I hit it, I was hitting it."

Little Jack got Drew thinking.

"You know, that's a good mentality with which to look at things," he said. "We put so much pressure on ourselves at this level to do what we're supposed to do. But if you really look at things, a guy is out there throwing 100 miles an hour and you hit a line drive to second base for an out.

"We hit the fool out of the ball, but we're beating ourselves up because we didn't hit the ball to the right spot. Wait a minute, let's analyze that. We're doing this at a high level. That's pretty good hitting."

Drew pauses. "Good hit, Dad," he says.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for Follow him on Twitter.