10/26/07 8:21 PM ET
Hit the music, it's Papelbon time
Red Sox closer draws attention with arm, Riverdance
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
He's got a signature sprint in from the bullpen and a cold-eyed sneer before he throws each pitch. There isn't just one warmup song ("Wild Thing" by the Troggs) to mark his entry into a home game, but a second ("Shipping Up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys).
Then there's the mid-to-upper 90s heat that ends with pure explosion in catcher Jason Varitek's mitt. And the splitter that leaves hitters in a state of utter helplessness.
When he records the final out to pin down another save, Papelbon's whole body literally gyrates in excitement toward Varitek, and his knees bend with emphasis as he shouts words that probably aren't decipherable to the human ear drum. It is all part of what makes Papelbon tick.
And oh yeah, now Papelbon has a dance. When the Red Sox clinched the American League East title, Papelbon ran onto the Fenway Park field, stepped on to the mound and let a spirited rendition of the Riverdance. Much to the delight of his faithful fans, Papelbon broke it out again after the Sox rallied from 3-1 down to top the Indians in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
How did Papelbon come up with such a thing on such short notice?
"The voices in my head," Papelbon said. "It just kind of comes to you. That's it."
Perhaps there is one more dance in Papelbon's future, and this one would be the most jubilant one yet.
"We're hopeful he keeps dancing after this [World Series], too," noted Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "That means we're on the right side of things."
If the Red Sox can go on to win the Fall Classic, maybe Papelbon can earn an appearance on "Dancing With the Stars."
Fact of the matter is, Papelbon's a star, and the fact that he embraces it with a joyful swagger is OK with his teammates.
"You can have all that and do all those things, but if you can't pitch on top of it, it's going to be a tough situation for you," said Varitek. "He's well-talented to go along with the ability and the mind-set to do the job. If he's blown 40 in a row, I don't know how many people are going to clap when he's dancing."
What Papelbon is -- to the core -- is a closer. It makes it all so strange to think back to his Minor League years when he was a starting pitcher. There was even that time in Spring Training of this year, when Papelbon -- mainly because of concerns that the organization had about his health late in 2006 -- was ticketed for the starting rotation.
Huh? It's hard to picture Papelbon's full-throttle intensity playing out as a starting pitcher. Give him the ball in the ninth inning and watch him turn the lights out.
"I think this sport certainly allows the character of the individual to be attached to their position, and he's right in line with that," said Farrell.
What's important to note about Papelbon is, for all that adrenaline, he is remarkably locked in when the baseball is in his hand. It isn't until after the mission is accomplished that his adrenaline comes bursting out.
"The biggest thing is the adrenaline that the ninth inning and those close, tight situations generate," said Farrell. "He's able to most effectively channel those, and not allow those to cause him to come out of his delivery and otherwise lose command of his fastball. He thrives on those [situations]."
Papelbon, who is a southerner with a drawl, has found the perfect baseball home in Boston. The city is filled with fire and passion and so is he.
"No doubt about it," Papelbon said. "I think this place, you know, delivers an adrenaline and an intensity like none other. As a pitcher, you can either use that to your advantage or it can hurt you. I think that most of the guys in this clubhouse love that adrenaline, love that intensity and love playing here."
At 26 years old, Papelbon has been an All-Star in his first two seasons. Now, he's trying to win his first World Series.
"I think that championship teams make players great," Papelbon said. "Players are remembered to be great when they're on championship teams. It's just like all this stuff about football, Peyton [Manning] wasn't considered great until he won it all. It's the same thing with baseball. You're not really considered a great player until you're on a championship-caliber team and contribute to those championships."
If the Red Sox can close this thing out, Papelbon will be on the team's very top shelf of contributors.
After posting a 1.85 ERA and striking out 84 batters over just 59 1/3 innings during the regular season, Papelbon has allowed four hits and no runs in his first five outings in this postseason.
His teammates might laugh a little at some of his antics. But when he's closing out games, they're laughing with him.
"I don't really deal with pitchers, I think they're weirdos," quipped Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.
Where does Papelbon rank on the weirdo list?
"Well, he's at the top of that list," said Lowell. "But you're very confident, because he has a little bit of Josh [Beckett's] mentality where it looks like he fears nothing on the mound. You want that out of your closer. You want a little bit of that wackiness. I think the closer needs to have a little bit of that different mentality, because you've got to be able to have a short-term memory -- just erase it, go on and go to the next one."
Perhaps Papelbon's personality feeds into how he does his job. Or maybe the job he does is what makes Papelbon so outgoing.
"His personality is unique," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think the fact that he throws 94 to 97 [mph] with command, though, probably is more important, with a split. He's one of the best. I do think it's kind of rare to have a younger guy like that, and he's kind of carefree, in a good way. But you give him the ball in the ninth inning, and it's amazing the trust that we all have in him, and he's earned it. He competes, and I think it's kind of rare to be that young and that advanced."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.