FORT MYERS, Fla. – When a photo op and exchange of pleasantries between members of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox doesn't register as the weirdest thing that happened here Monday, you know it was some kind of odd spring-training evening.
Carl Pavano pitched. The last time that happened was 1967, or thereabouts. In the meantime, he had sat out with a bruised butt, failed to tell the Yankees he broke two ribs when he wrecked his Porsche and had troubles with his right elbow, shoulder and, if you ask some of his teammates, heart.
Pavano – Carla to some in the ever-tolerant New York fan base – actually looked decent, his fastball shimmying and his slider tight. While the pregame hullabaloo centered around the meet and greet among Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima and New York's Hideki Matsui, the postgame chatter was all about Pavano and how he had managed to navigate the Red Sox's lineup as well as he had I-75.
Yes, Pavano made the two-hour drive down here instead of taking the Yankees' bus. He wanted to make sure he was early, and when Yankees manager Joe Torre saw him at City of Palms Park, he uttered something between a word and intonation.
Now is the time for Pavano to salvage his Yankees career, to take that extra "a" off his name, to make the last two years of his $39.95 million contract more fruitful than the first two. The Yankees, generally as tolerant as a Lactaid drinker to 2%, have given Pavano the extra chance Ed Whitson, Kenny Rogers, Jeff Weaver, Hideki Irabu and Javy Vazquez never got for one simple reason: At his best, Pavano was better than all of them.
"It's sad that New York hasn't seen the best of Carl," said Yankees backup catcher Todd Pratt, who caught Pavano on Monday, "because I've definitely faced him many times. They talk about A.J. (Burnett) and Josh (Beckett). He was just as dominating as those two guys when he was at his best. I saw some of the stuff today I saw in the past."
Like Pavano's final pitch of the day. Two men were on. J.D. Drew had worked a 3-2 count. Pavano had given up two runs in the second inning on three straight two-out hits, and he didn't want a repeat. He spun an inside fastball that tailed back over the plate as if drawn magnetically, catching Drew for strike three and ending his day.
Pavano's other strikeout was not so pretty. He left a sinker in the middle of the strike zone, and were Ramirez not looking breaking ball and completely fooled by Pavano's pitch, it might have landed on Sanibel Island.
"I was actually ducking when I let it go," Pavano said.
To see Pavano joke was, at the very least, encouraging for the Yankees. If two seasons of CRASH-TEST DUMMY headlines and personal call-outs from teammates haven't systematically desensitized Pavano, nothing will.
Perhaps we'll learn whether that's because Pavano is a completely oblivious narcissist or a man with tremendous strength of character. Injuries have defined him to this point, and, as Randy Johnson described earlier this spring, in New York particularly they present a conundrum: He who plays with one catches grief for poor performance, and he who doesn't catches grief for poor fortitude – baseball's worst Catch-22.
Combine that with Pavano's reputation as someone so soft he makes Charmin feel like steel and it turns combustible.
"Sometimes, things don't work out," Pavano said. "And it hasn't in the past. I just keep staying positive and thinking every fifth day is mine to pitch."
Thinking isn't good enough any more.
Pavano has been thinking he's going to pitch since June 27, 2005, and save for one start last spring, two this spring and a couple rehab stints, he hasn't. Monday's start, in fact, was supposed to come Friday until Pavano's girlfriend needed medical attention for an emergency.
And while Pavano's absence was not only excusable but laudable, it added to the list of reasons he has missed starts, one beginning to approach the Dead Sea Scrolls in length.
The Yankees are counting on Pavano to fill the final spot in their rotation. They are also counting on winning the World Series. These two statements would not seem to meet in a Venn Diagram. Yet the Yankees keep affirming their commitment, shaking off the two runs Pavano yielded in three innings Monday as incidental, more concerned he didn't sprain his leg hair or tweak his coccyx.
"Results aren't important as long as he's healthy," Torre said, "and if he's healthy, we know what we've got."
Pavano would like to believe they've got a legitimate pitcher. In 2004, before signing his big-money deal with the Yankees, Pavano went 18-8 with a 3.00 earned-run average for Florida. The year prior, he shut down the Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series, outdueling Roger Clemens in the process.
He also would like to believe they've got a new person. No longer is he golfing or running outside. He wants to minimize potential injuries, and, for what it's worth, Torre said Pavano on Monday had "a lot of life in his body."
Having the manager on board is a start.
"I think it's a good sign," Pavano said.
Convincing the rest of his teammates and all of New York?
That's going to take a little more than a weird spring night.