BOSTON -- When the Boston Red Sox opened spring training this year, it was hard to know exactly what to make of Phil Plantier. During his two previous minor-league seasons, he had hit 60 home runs with 184 RBI, yet he seemed to be a victim of the Red Sox's extravagant spending over the winter.
He broke up one sleepy March afternoon by cracking a soaring, 420-foot homer off Roger McDowell to beat the Phillies. But if the hit was a message, the Red Sox ignored it; as expected, he was sent down before the season, no more certain than before of where his career was headed.
"I really didn't know," said Plantier. "I mean, with the off-season signings, it was obvious to me that I was going back to Pawtucket. I had prepared myself for that, so it really wasn't a shock, but I still didn't know what would happen."
Since then, what has happened re-emphasizes a fundamental truth about sports in general but baseball especially: productivity is everything. When a player is given a chance and begins to produce, space magically opens up, rosters are re-arranged, contracts are ignored and almost anything is possible.
As a result, Plantier, 22, suddenly finds himself in a pivotal role as the Red Sox continue their attempt to overtake the Blue Jays.
Already a surprising catalyst for the club's resurgence, Plantier has become even more important with Mike Greenwell probably out for at least a week. Since his second call-up on Aug. 9, a move that would seem to be permanent, he is batting .392 with five homers and 22 RBI in 27 games. Last week he hit a huge pinch-hit homer seven rows into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium. With Greenwell out, he also seems to have made a fairly easy transition from right field back to left, the position he played in the minors.
"He's going to be a great player," said Mo Vaughn, who has played most of the last two seasons with Plantier. "A great player."
Plantier looks something like a cross between former Red Sox pitcher Mike Boddicker and Superman. With his bulging chest, jet-black hightops and crouched stance, his style is readily identifiable, and he is already often the target of squealing females who started lining the railings to glimpse him when he was at Pawtucket.
Plantier seems almost oblivious to it all. Friendly and soft-spoken, he comes off as someone whose life has suddenly come together all at once, professionally and personally, leaving him in a perpetual state of bliss.
It started during the offseason, when he started dating seriously a woman who had grown up down the street from him in Poway, Calif., near San Diego. The two were married just before spring training and recently had their first child, a boy, Ryan, who was born prematurely and weighed in at just 3 pounds 7 ounces, but is completely healthy now.
Although Jennifer Plantier is close to receiving her bachelor's degree in communications at the University of California-San Diego, she agreed to come East with her husband. A fledgling journalist, she currently reviews board and computer games for Copley News Service.
"Getting married, hopefully it will never change because right now when I think about it, I still get chills," said Plantier. "All I have to do when I get down or when I get tired or something, all I have to do is think about what I have at home. It makes things much easier.
"It's weird. Last year I really felt like I was playing for myself. Now my whole perspective is different. I'm not playing for myself anymore. I'm playing for my family. There's people relying on me now. I don't feel 22 years old, but I love it. It makes everything that much better."
It is only recently that his career has come around as well, answering many lingering questions about him, particularly whether he could make the jump from minor-league phenom to legitimate major-league player.
The Red Sox seemed none too sure themselves. Their treatment of Plantier was best described as curious. Although he had led the minor leagues in home runs the past two years, they signed Greenwell to a four-year contract, Jack Clark to a three-year deal and Tom Brunansky to a contract that runs at least two years and possibly three.
Asked what the Red Sox thought of Plantier at the time, general manager Lou Gorman said, "We thought he was probably another year away. You thought he might be able to help you this season, but you weren't really sure. And with Greenwell, you had a guy who already had done it. He had already put the numbers up there. He was proven."
Plantier understood, but still felt challenged.
"It's like I wanted to answer it for myself, too," said Plantier. "As much as everyone else wanted to know, I wanted to find out if I could play up here more than anyone. It's not like I ever doubted I could play, I just wanted the challenge of doing it. And really, I'm still trying to find out."
It took a while. Plantier had one brief call-up last September in which he often appeared overmatched. This year, when he continued to hammer Triple A pitching, he lashed out at Red Sox management, who finally called him up for another brief assignment in which he went 4-for-17 with three RBI.
"When he came down the second time, he didn't say two words about it," said outfielder Bob Zupcic. "He was totally professional."
"By that time, I had discovered the business of it and learned a lot of things," said Plantier. "You do your time, you wait your turn. It wasn't going to do anybody any good to bad-mouth anybody."
While he was awaiting another call, an interesting thing occurred. A cyst suddenly developed in the middle of his back. It became such a problem that, first, it caused him to change his radical stance, making the much-talked-about crouch less pronounced simply because "I had to stand up more."
Then the cyst knocked him out of the lineup entirely, and for a while, it looked as if it might postpone his chance to be called up again.
Then, just like that, it was gone. "I don't know what happened," he said. "It just dissolved on its own."
Plantier said the unplanned change in his stance has actually helped his hitting. He said that is the reason the stance is not as radical this time around. As for how and why the cyst went away, he is not certain, it just seems to fit the overall plan.