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Friday, 14 March 2008 18:04
MLB Headline News

 FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -Big Papi has big plans for the Red Sox' very long flight to Japan - eat, sleep, and win all of Jonathan Papelbon's money playing cards.
``He's a good player, but he's got bad luck,'' David Ortiz says. ``So he better bring his whole bank account on the airplane. We always kill him. He's loud when he's winning, then boom, he's quiet.''
Fortunately for Pap - and maybe for Papi - Boston's star closer was rewarded with a $775,000 contract this month, nearly doubling last year's salary of $425,000.
It's players like Papelbon and Ortiz and pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima who will attract big crowds to the Tokyo Dome to see the World Series champions during a four-game trip that begins when they leave Fort Myers on Wednesday.
The Red Sox and Oakland Athletics each play two exhibition games against Japanese teams March 22 and 23. Then they face each other in the regular-season opener March 25, the earliest start in major league history, and again on March 26.
The competition, though, begins on the way over.
``There'll be plenty of poker to play,'' Papelbon said, ``lots of poker. Ortiz better bring his wallet.''
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The journey is a gamble for the Red Sox.
After the New York Yankees went to Japan to start the 2004 season against Tampa Bay, Mike Mussina said he couldn't fall into a normal sleep pattern. Three months after Kevin Brown returned, the pitcher was diagnosed with intestinal parasites, an ailment that he said ``would seem to be a distinct possibility'' that he picked up in Japan.
``By the time the Yankees team got back from the trip they were all using it as a crutch,'' Boston general manager Theo Epstein said this spring training.
Responded Mussina: ``Yeah, we used it as an excuse for winning the division.''
But the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years that season, overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the AL championship series against the Yankees then sweeping St. Louis.
Just how the early start to this season, the 18-hour flight each way and the jet lag affects the Red Sox remains to be seen. They're trying to take it in stride, even if some players don't relish crossing 12 time zones and the international date line while cooped up in a plane.
Manager Terry Francona knows complaining about the trip won't help.
``I think we all choose to go do it,'' he said. ``We're going to go play wherever they tell us to play, whenever they tell us to play and if we screw it up it's our own fault.''
He'd love to start ace Josh Beckett and Matsuzaka against Oakland. Beckett is all but certain to miss the trip with a sore back.
Matsuzaka, whose wife is due to give birth in Boston the day of the flight, may join the team later or skip the trip altogether. That surely would disappoint fans eager to see the return of the pitcher who starred in Japan for eight seasons.
His current teammates have peppered him with questions.
Many of them ``asked me to teach them more Japanese phrases and they also had a lot of questions about Japanese food,'' Matsuzaka said.
``So I can tell that everyone is looking forward to the trip. For the players, it's going to be very physically demanding, but I just hope that we can get a couple wins and those will be our good memories.''
If Beckett and Dice-K don't go, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield would be the likely starters against the A's.
Wakefield is excited about the trip, if only because of the monotony of training camp in Florida.
``We're tired of being down here for six weeks,'' he said. ``I don't think anybody's looking forward to the 18-hour flight over there, but I think once we get over there and represent baseball the right way I think everybody's excited to go over there and play.''
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The Red Sox are scheduled to arrive at midnight on Thursday, many of them anticipating the journey because it may be their only chance to visit Japan.
Eleven hours later, some players will take a helicopter to an army base for a clinic and autograph session. Reliever Mike Timlin, a strong supporter of the armed forces, could be one of them.
``Oh, that'd be great,'' the 42-year-old Texas native said. ``We can spread Red Sox Nation. We can spread American pride. We can see and speak to soldiers that are stationed there that may have been stationed there for years. It's just a chance to hang out with people that make what our life is possible.''
Francona, Okajima and Red Sox coaches will hold a clinic the day before the season opener. There will be the usual formal events - a welcome party then a Major League Baseball party at the U.S. Embassy.
It could be worse. It was for Timlin in 2006 when he played for the United States in the first World Baseball Classic, the tournament in which Matsuzaka was MVP. But that started in early March, hardly enough time in spring training for players to prepare.
That season, for the first time since 2001, Timlin went on the disabled list.
``We had enough time prior to going to Japan that we could start scheduled throwing earlier and do things to make the adjustment to get ready,'' Timlin said. ``Oh, yeah, there were some problems that I went through. Your head's telling you to be competitive and your body's telling you, `Wait, I can't do that yet.'''
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Francona has one overriding goal - beat Oakland twice.
In the first season-opening series in Japan, the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs split their two games in 2000. The 2003 two-game series between Oakland and Seattle was relocated to the United States because of the war in Iraq.
In the most recent series in Japan in 2004, the Yankees and Tampa Bay also split.
``We'll try to play the best baseball we could,'' Francona said.
The adjustment will be eased by three exhibition games after they return, all against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Then the Red Sox have a day off before facing Oakland in regular-season games April 1 and 2. And then it's on to Toronto for three games before they finally reach Boston the night of April 6, two days before their home opener against Detroit.
``I know I need my third pair of paints,'' the manager said with a smile. ``We go where they send us.''
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Francona had some memorable trips as a minor league player. In the Southern League, his team had to take a bus from Knoxville, Tenn., to Orlando, Fla., but it broke down shortly after midnight, he said.
One of the players was handy enough to reattach the fan belt. The team made it to Orlando and went straight to the ballpark for a doubleheader, perhaps passing a well-known franchise restaurant.
``You put a Cracker Barrel over the Pacific,'' Francona joked about the flight to Japan, ``and this would be the exact same trip.''
Major League Baseball and management and players for the Red Sox and Athletics held many discussions aimed at easing the burden. But they were powerless to change one thing.
The plane will still take 18 hours to go from Fort Myers to Tokyo.
``Whoever set it up knew what they were doing,'' Francona said. ``Whoever set it up didn't go to Japan.''
 

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