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"Don't do it," Steve Avery's friend told him. "I'm telling you,
Don't do it." What sort of hazardous undertaking would prompt a
buddy to issue that sort of warning? Skydiving? Bungee-jumping?
No, the caveat referred to pitching in the American League. The
advice came from Avery's former Braves teammate Kent Mercker,
who was tattooed regularly with the Orioles and the Indians in
1996. "He told me the American League was a beer league," Avery
says, "where guys just go up there hacking for the fences. We'll

In January, Avery signed a one-year, $4.85 million free-agent
contract with the Red Sox that includes two option years, the
first one belonging to Avery. "I would have signed a one-year
deal wherever I went," he says. "I wanted to make sure I liked
the city and the league, and I wanted to see what direction the
team was going."

In truth, this former member of Atlanta's Fab Four rotation had
fewer opportunities than he figured he'd have to seize a
big-money, long-term deal. "I expected more interest from
contending teams," he says. And why not? Today's market brings
three-year, $13 million deals to pitchers such as David Wells, a
33-year-old lefthander with a weight problem. He had a losing
record last year despite playing for Baltimore, the best
home-run-hitting team of all time. Avery, a 26-year-old
lefthander, is a two-time 18-game winner who has pitched in 18
postseason games. He threw eight shutout innings on the road in
the 1991 National League Championship Series with the Braves
facing elimination against the Pirates. But Avery also is 14-23
over the past two years with a 4.57 ERA and suffering from an
obvious decrease in velocity. The last pitch he threw in an
Atlanta uniform resulted in a bases-loaded walk to Wade Boggs of
the Yankees that decided Game 4 of the '96 World Series. "I
tried to throw a slider down the middle, and I just couldn't do
it," says Avery, who was limited to 23 starts last year because
of a muscle strain in his side. "At that point I just couldn't
give it my best shot."

Though he was signed by Boston to replace Roger Clemens at the
front of the Sox rotation, Avery is, in truth, a reclamation
project. He needed such a mechanical overhaul upon arriving at
Boston's spring training camp that pitching coach Joe Kerrigan
started playing catch with Avery in the outfield, eventually
retooling Avery's delivery so that he brings his hands over his
head and uses a shorter stride. "Over the years his motion had
gotten bigger and bigger, and he had more moving parts,"
Kerrigan says. "That's not uncommon for pitchers as they grow."

After Avery's first time trying the new delivery on the mound,
Kerrigan gushed, "The ball was jumping out of his hand. It's the
best I've seen him throw in two or three years." Still, Avery
rarely cracked the upper 80s on the radar gun in spring games.

Avery picked a difficult place to get himself straightened out.
For one, he's stepping into Clemens's shoes. For another,
pitchers at Boston's Fenway Park yielded the second-highest
batting average (.292) in baseball last year. As Mercker would
attest, rock climbing may have been a safer pick.




CF Shane Mack
Likely to share time with Darren Bragg

3B Tim Naehring
Averaged .324 before 1996 All-Star break, .243 after

2B John Valentin
Angry about switch from shortstop, could be traded

1B Mo Vaughn
Led league in hitting at home (.381) last season

DH Reggie Jefferson
Batted .389 last year as designated hitter

LF Wil Cordero
Can't hide glove: Former infielder tries the outfield

RF Rudy Pemberton
Nine-year minor leaguer gets shot at age 27

C Bill Haselman
Better defense than catching mate Mike Stanley

SS Nomar Garciaparra
His emergence forced Valentin to second base

Ace Steve Avery
Durability and arm strength in question

Closer Heathcliff Slocumb
Prospered (31 saves) despite heavy load (831/3 innings)


The Red Sox allowed the most unearned runs in the majors last
year (114), the club's highest season total since 1934. In the
expansion era, since 1961, only three American League teams have
been charged with more unearned runs: the 1987 Indians (122),
the '75 Tigers (120) and the '61 Athletics (117). Boston
righthander Tim Wakefield's 30 unearned runs were the most given
up by any pitcher since '87, when Charlie Hough yielded 39.