Time traveler

Mirabelli arrives just in time

BOSTON -- The first Red Sox-Yankees meeting of 2006 was supposed to be all about Johnny Damon and his return to the venue where he played so hard and so well for four seasons. Instead, an even more intriguing subplot developed -- Doug Mirabelli's mad dash from San Diego to Boston.

Earlier in the day, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein reacquired the long-trusted backup catcher, who was best known for being Tim Wakefield's personal catcher.

But the pure news of the trade (Josh Bard, Cla Meredith and either a player to be named or cash considerations to the Padres served as the freight) quickly became overshadowed by everything it took just to get Mirabelli to Fenway Park in time to catch Wakefield.

For almost from the moment the deal became official, Mirabelli was on the clock. He made it in time -- barely.

The problem is that Mirabelli had to fly from San Diego. After hearing that a deal was in the works, Mirabelli did not accompany the Padres to San Francisco for the start of a three-game series against the Giants. Between flying all the way across the country and losing three hours (because of time zone difference) in the air, it was a tight squeeze.

"We'll keep our fingers crossed," Epstein said a couple of hours before the first pitch. "Planes, trains and automobiles."

Epstein left out the part about police escorts.

Mirabelli disembarked from his chartered plane at 6:48 p.m. ET, quickly got into a Massachusetts' state trooper SUV and arrived at Fenway Park 12 minutes later. He changed into his uniform (the familiar No. 28 he wore during his first stint in Boston) during the short drive (approximately five miles) from Logan International Airport to Fenway.

The end result -- a 7-3 victory by the Red Sox -- is a day that Mirabelli will never forget.

"You can't even imagine how much work went into just getting here and to show up three minutes before the game," said Mirabelli. "The whole time on the flight, I'm thinking there's no possible this is going to work out. But it did and it was good and I'm glad I got through it, because I was nervous as anything. I don't think I've been that nervous in a ballgame, ever, in my career."

Sox manager Terry Francona had two lineups ready to go for Monday's game. One had Mirabelli batting eighth and catching and the other one had captain Jason Varitek hitting sixth and handling Wakefield.

For a while, it looked like the Varitek lineup was going to be Francona's "gamer." When Wakefield went out to the bullpen to warm up for the 7:09 p.m. start, Varitek was the catcher.

But at 7:01 p.m., Red Sox publicist Peter Chase announced to the press box that Mirabelli was indeed in the lineup.

The whole experience, though ultimately rewarding, is not one Francona would like to relive.

"That's the most anxiety that I have felt going into a game since I've been here," Francona said. "[Traveling secretary] Jack McCormick is the one who got him here on time. He's probably the MVP."

When Mirabelli's name was announced to the Fenway faithful during the lineup presentation of public address announcer Carl Beane at 7:07 p.m., there were roars all over the park. Because Mirabelli was still in the clubhouse racing to get ready for the game, slugger Manny Ramirez took in the cheers with three mock curtain calls to the crowd.

Mirabelli got another loud ovation for his first at-bat, reminding him of why he was so devastated to be traded from the Red Sox in the first place.

"As a player, it feels great, because you know the fans appreciate you and your hard work," Mirabelli said. "I never wanted to leave. I knew the fans and I knew that there wasn't another place out there like Boston. That was one of the struggles I had this offseason when I was leaving that I knew I wasn't going to be able to play in Fenway anymore. That was a tough transition for me."

But the transition back, though nerve-wracking, sure looked seamless. Mirabelli and Wakefield looked anything but a tandem that hadn't worked together since last October. Mirabelli had no hits in four at-bats, but he had no passed balls either.

"The first time I've seen the knuckleball [in 2006] was in the warm-ups before the game and I dropped a couple and it was like, here we go," said Mirabelli. "A couple of innings into it, I settled down and relaxed a little bit and it started coming back to me, but I was nervous."

Wakefield was in relative awe.

"I probably have never seen this in my whole life," Wakefield said. "Guy gets out of a car dressed in uni, puts his gear on and goes right into the game. Phenomenal job."

The timing could not have been better for the Red Sox. Bard had well-chronicled struggles (10 passed balls) handling Wakefield's knuckleball.

"I feel horrible for Josh Bard," said Wakefield. "This kid is a true professional. He worked his tail off all through Spring Training and for the first five starts. He cared a lot. I know how much work he put into it. I feel like he was coming in to a no-win situation here, but he gave it everything he had in the time he was here."

"I think he was frustrated at the fact that he understood the passed balls were leading to runs," Francona said of Bard. "He's a very conscientious kid. But he worked hard, he did everything we asked him to do. That's why, as a staff, we were willing to be patient with him, we thought he deserved it."

In the end, however, it was much easier for the Red Sox to preach patience than to practice it. Hence, the Mirabelli sequel.

"I think we all thought [Bard would] be able to do it in the long run," said Francona. "But we need to win now. If we were a team with a bunch of kids that was trying to look for the future, you could keep running him out there and let him track it down. We thought he would get better. What we're doing is trying to stay with some teams in our division. It was getting harder to do that."

The Red Sox, at 15-11, lead the Yankees and Blue Jays by one game in the American League East.

In another interesting twist, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman tried to run interference on the deal.

"It was pretty obvious that they were having trouble with Bard and Wakefield," Cashman said. "Did I make a phone call, make sure that I could turn the heat up on a one-horse race and make it a two-horse race? Yes. They really needed him back, because Mirabelli does a great job with Wakefield.

"I tried to push it back, delay them getting him by a day. You run interference to make sure that whatever price they pay, it's the highest price possible. Unfortunately, it didn't push it back a day, and I don't know if it increased the price tag or not, but competition can make you sweat a little bit. At the end of the day, they got their man."

Mirabelli appreciated the way the deal was handled by Padres GM Kevin Towers.

"When I talked to Kevin Towers, he had mentioned that the Yankees were interested in me," said Mirabelli. "He wasn't necessarily going to trade me back to Boston. He was going to try to do what he could but he was going to do what was best for the Padres. I thank God that it worked out this way, because I really didn't want to go to the Yankees."

The Red Sox traded Mirabelli to the Padres on Dec. 7, 2005, for second baseman Mark Loretta.

"A lot of thought went into it ahead of time, the Mirabelli-Loretta deal," said Epstein. "It was sort of an educated guess that if you bring in enough guys, bring in guys with the right kind of defensive skills, hands and makeup, that they'll figure it out over time. It was a question of how long it would take and if it didn't work out, would Mirabelli be available at the right cost?"

Talks with the Padres heated up, according to Epstein, following Wakefield's April 26 start at Cleveland. Bard committed four passed balls in that game.

"We have no doubt [Bard] would have eventually figured it out with Wake," Epstein said. "It might have been three days from now. It might have been three months from now. We didn't necessarily have the luxury of the time. The single best solution was available now and we didn't want to wait."

Mirabelli handled Wakefield exclusively from 2002-05 and was widely lauded for how aptly he handled the perplexing pitch.

"We felt that there's probably no one on the planet better suited than Doug to do this," said Epstein. "We had a chance to get him at a reasonable cost. So that made sense to us."

Mirabelli, 35, was hitting .182 in 22 at-bats for the Padres. The 28-year-old Bard played in seven games for the Red Sox, hitting .278. Meredith is a side-winder who struggled mightily during a brief callup with the Red Sox last season. He is a middle relief prospect.

"I think his personality in the clubhouse and his ability to communicate with the pitchers will be good," Varitek said. "That's not taking anything away from Josh. Josh brought a ton of communication with the pitchers and he did an excellent job with that, communicating back and forth. I know Dougie really well. He's a very good friend a great teammate."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.