Jose Iglesias, Casey Kelly shine
Prospects steal the show on first day of spring games for Red Sox
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mostly, the day belonged to Casey Kelly, the 20-year-old kid born into a baseball clan from nearby Sarasota whose mom and brother and high school football coach and a bunch of buddies drove down to see him pitch for the first time in a Boston Red Sox uniform.
Mostly, the night belonged to Jose Iglesias, the homesick 20-year-old kid born to a baseball dream in Havana who could only wish that his family was there to see him, but trusted that somebody with a satellite dish back on the island was monitoring his every move in his first game with the Red Sox.
But Wednesday wasn't all about Kelly and Iglesias. The day also belonged to an improbable pair of friends, Luis Exposito and Che-Hsuan Lin, the 23-year-old, Chinese-speaking, Cuban-American catcher from Miami and the 21-year-old Taiwanese outfielder who grew tight playing together last summer in small-town Salem, Va.
Pitcher Kelly and shortstop Iglesias sparkled brightest in the mosaic that constituted the first day and night of baseball for the Red Sox in 2010, the annual doubleheader against autograph-seeking college kids from Northeastern and Boston College. Kelly threw 10 pitches in a two-strikeout, first-pitch groundout inning of work against Northeastern in a 15-0 Red Sox win. Iglesias lashed the first pitch he saw from a mainlander for a three-run double in a 6-1 win against BC; he also was on the receiving end of a pickoff play called by catcher Jason Varitek.
"I don't miss them -- I need them," Iglesias, who is the youngest of five brothers and a sister, said of his family back home.
Spoiled? "Oh, yes," he said with a smile. "My mom always babied me."
Iglesias signed a four-year, $8.2 million contract after defecting from Cuba, but these days his most valued possession is the phone card he bought to call his family two or three times a week.
Yes, he said, his mother cries when he calls. "My father, too.
"By myself for a year and a half," he said, his face flushed momentarily with emotion, "it is hard, very hard."
Iglesias entered the game as a pinch runner for Marco Scutaro in the third, and he lined a double into the left-field corner to clear the bases in the fourth.
"He looked like he was ready to play," manager Terry Francona said when asked whether the Iglesias bandwagon had picked up any new passengers with the game televised in New England. "He wasn't messing around. He was obviously very excited to play. He came out in a hurry." Beyond the lightning-quick hands, the flashy embellishments and the obvious ease with which he glides through the Sox clubhouse as if he has been here forever, Iglesias has impressed the Red Sox most with his obsessive desire to succeed. He wants it all -- to speak flawless English, to embrace, and be embraced by, his new country, and to show that he can play at the highest level.
"Mi sueño, " he said to Alex Ochoa, the baseball operations special assistant whose primary assignment is to guide Iglesias through the assimilation process, which includes serving as interpreter.
No translation was required. My dream.
Kelly, the son of one big leaguer and brother to another, shares that ambition, and he is on the same fast track to get there. On Wednesday against Northeastern, the kid who would have been a college sophomore himself had he elected to play football at Tennessee threw a fastball that touched 93 and registered both of his strikeouts on changeups. Victor Martinez, who was behind the plate, raved about him afterward.
"I don't think I've stopped smiling since I got off the mound," said Kelly, whose first exposure to big league hitters will come Sunday in his hometown when he faces the Baltimore Orioles.
Francona has said that watching Kelly in workouts reminded him of a young Jon Lester before the Sox left-hander became the impressive physical specimen he is now.
What you see now, Francona said, might bear scant resemblance to what you'll see in the future.
"Amazing," Francona said. "He doesn't look like a kid who just turned 20 and hasn't pitched.
"Where does he settle in? I don't think anyone knows. 93, 95? Where does he settle in? That's the fun part. You're going to see somebody different from what you see today."
And then there were Exposito and Lin, who made their own memorable debuts Wednesday.
"Me and Che [pronounced Shay] hang out all the time, so I just picked it up," said Exposito, explaining how it was that he happened to be chatting in Chinese with a reporter from Taiwan in the middle of the clubhouse. "He follows me around, and I help him.
"By the time he got to Salem, he spoke pretty good English, but he speaks Chinese to me when he gets mad, so I had to learn the language."
Exposito is in his first big league camp with the Sox but in his fifth year in the organization. He lost a year in 2007 when he was suspended by the Sox for disciplinary reasons. "That's in the past, and I learned a lot from it," Exposito said. "I'm grateful that the Red Sox stood by me, and now all I want to be is the best teammate I can be."
Against Northeastern, Exposito had a double and a single and drove in four runs. "He's so big and strong and throws so well, he's going to be fun to watch," Francona said. Lin, who hit a two-run home run in the 2007 All-Star Futures Game and was MVP, played left field and had two singles and two RBIs. Lin is another find for the Red Sox's Asian scouting tandem of Craig Shipley and Jon Deeble.
"We were on him for a year, year and a half before we signed him," said senior vice president Ben Cherington. "He became a bigger name before we signed him, but I remember Ship mentioned him to me, showing me video from one of the amateur tournaments, a center fielder who covered a lot of ground, bat speed he really liked.
"We like him. He's got a chance to be a very good defensive center fielder. He's got really good barrel-to-ball skills as a hitter, he's still learning some of the nuances of plate discipline, how to drive the ball. He's been really young at every level he's played at, including last year in the Carolina League, [where he] got off to a really tough start but, to his credit, made some adjustments and had a good second half. So he's got a chance to be a good player, a combination of good defensive ability and offensive upside."
Chien-Ming Wang is the most famous big leaguer from Taiwan; Lin, who has played center field in the minors, was asked what it would mean to be the first position player to find his way to big league stardom.
"I can't think that far ahead," he said through translator Mickey Jiang, "but once I make it to the major leagues, I would like to become a role model for kids back in Taiwan whose goal will be to make the big leagues like Che-Hsuan Lin."
Are the dreams ever sweeter than on Day One?
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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