Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Salem reliever a free spirit

He was out on the town during a road trip one night this season, and he met some girls. That's when Josh Papelbon -- the man with the built-in pick-up line for a last name -- decided to be someone else, just for fun.

For the purposes of this interaction, he wasn't the younger brother of one of the top closers in the major leagues. He wasn't a twin brother of another minor-league pitcher. He wasn't that guy for the Salem Red Sox with the funky submarine delivery or even a professional baseball player -- all great conversation pieces he could use to his advantage in this situation.

No, Josh Papelbon decided to pose as a door-to-door Tupperware salesman.

And he wanted to make a sale.

"Do you have enough Tupperware in your home?" he asked the girls. And without waiting for a response, Papelbon continued: "The answer is no. You can always use more.

"I've got a product catalogue. Let me go get it. I want to show you some products."

The girls bought the story if not the Tupperware. And while he eventually came clean, Papelbon had succeeded once again in his only real goal in life -- amusing himself and others.

"How do you keep it fun?" Papelbon said outside the clubhouse last week. "You get out. You can't surround yourself all the time with your job. I think in any business, a lot of people get too bogged down on that. When I go out, I don't like to talk about baseball. I like to just talk about life in general, you know? It kind of sets you free."

Nobody in the Salem clubhouse is more of a free spirit than this man. With his shaggy hair (he plans to grow it even longer), breezy Southern disposition and quick smile, Papelbon seems more like a surfer than a ballplayer.

"Everything's a joke to him," said fellow Red Sox pitcher and close friend Kyle Fernandes. "He's always outgoing. I've never seen him take anything serious that has to do with baseball. Yeah, he comes out every day and works and all that stuff, but he keeps it fun."

Papelbon's teammates have some fun with him, too. If there's a Boston Red Sox game on in the clubhouse, and Jonathan Papelbon is trying to close it out, the Salem players break out the snarky remarks.

"This guy stinks!"

"Wow, what a loser!"

"Hey Josh, you know this clown?"

Josh doesn't mind being constantly compared to his older brother -- or even his twin brother, Jeremy, who is a pitcher in the Cubs organization -- but he also knows there's no comparison. Jonathan, who's already broken the Boston career record for saves in his fifth major-league season, studies Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Josh models himself after Chad Bradford, a journeyman submariner.

Jonathan picked up the victory in the MLB All-Star game Tuesday. That same night, Josh rode the bullpen pine in a game against Winston-Salem.

Jonathan brings a fastball in the mid-90s. Josh?

"Eighty-three," he said with a smile, when asked the hardest he's thrown. "Maybe 84. Not blowing any doors down, I know that."

Yet he's been effective. Josh struck out five in three shutout innings at Lynchburg on Friday night to lower his ERA to 3.08. He's 3-1 with two saves and has allowed only 32 hits in 38 innings.

He credits some of his success this season to an improving change-up that he can use against left-handers. And his fastball gets plenty of movement thanks to his knuckle-dragging delivery learned in college.

Despite his strong numbers, Josh isn't fooling himself. His stated goal as a baseball player is "to not get released." He knows that gaudy radar-gun readings and lofty signing bonuses are two major components in getting promoted. Josh, a 48th round pick out of North Florida in 2006, has neither.

"This is a cutthroat business," he says. "This is a stockpiled organization. They have a lot of talent, and there's not a lot of room for upward movement.

"But when those thoughts arise, you give them two or three seconds of thought and then say, 'OK, I'm going to sweep that under the rug.' Because you can't really control it. Why am I even going to waste my breath talking about it if I can't control it?"

Besides, thinking about the differences in lifestyle between himself and his older brother would only make Josh sick. Josh got a tiny taste of the major-league life last year when he and some other minor leaguers rode a charter jet.

"When we got there, welcome back to the minor leagues," Josh said. "The bus broke down."

So when they're talking on the phone like they often do, and Jonathan complains about a long road trip or some lacking amenities in a hotel, the younger Papelbon fires back.

"I have to kind of put him in his place a little bit, because he can act like a diva every now and then," Josh said. "I say, 'Dude, don't even start with that stuff.' "

Josh gets plenty of questions from his Salem teammates about Jonathan. He doesn't really know how to answer them, because often he never asks himself. When they're together, they're just brothers like any other, he said.

"Recently, I went ahead and told my teammates that I disowned him as a brother so they don't ask me so many questions anymore," he said.

He grinned.

Think they'll actually buy that load of Tupperware?

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