Whether it's a line drive or a one-liner, Kevin Millar has been coming through for the Boston Red Sox.
It didn't look like much to laugh about a few months ago when the Red Sox were in an international tug-of-war with the Chunichi Dragons in Japan to get Millar. But just three months into his Red Sox career, he's emerged as a team leader with off-the-cuff jokes that brighten Boston's clubhouse. Win or lose, the smile rarely leaves his face.
"I'm enjoying every day we come here, to be able to be a part of Fenway Park and the Red Sox," Millar says. "I just like to have fun."
And his teammates love having him around.
"Kevin just makes you laugh even when you don't want to," David Ortiz said.
Millar couldn't joke about the anxiety of the offseason. He spent six weeks wondering if he'd be playing in North America or Asia. He worried about being abroad with a war in Iraq on the horizon.
"It was scary," he said.
The Florida Marlins paid Millar US$1.05 million last season, but had too many right-handed hitters and sold him to Chunichi for US$1.2 million.
He said he probably would have signed in the majors for US$1.5 million and a chance to play every day, but the two-year, US$6.2 million deal he agreed to with Chunichi in January was too good to pass up. But first, Florida was required to put him on waivers. After the Red Sox claimed him, Millar said he never signed the Dragons' contract.
US and Japanese baseball officials began talks. Chunichi released its claim on Feb. 14 and his rights returned to the Marlins. The next morning, the Red Sox obtained him for cash considerations.
Millar was so thrilled -- and relieved -- that he got in his car that day and drove 16 hours from his home in Beaumont, Texas, to Boston's training camp in Fort Myers, Florida. He signed a two-year, US$5.3 million contract plus a US$3.5 million player option for 2005 that would become guaranteed if he has 800 plate appearances this year and next year.
Millar found it curious that a 31-year-old player with an undistinguished past drew so much attention. He wasn't drafted, but began his pro career with the independent St. Paul Saints in 1993 and spent the next four seasons in the minors.
He was hurt most of the 1998 season before joining Florida to stay from May 21, 1999, through last season. In 500 games, he hit .296 with 59 homers and 251 RBIs.
Millar has played first base, outfield and designated hitter, and got off to an outstanding start. He hit .404 through the first 16 games and, as part of one of baseball's best lineups, has hovered around .300 since then.
Boston general manager Theo Epstein was confident he'd end up with Millar, a hard-working, blue-collar type player with average speed and fielding ability but a good bat.
"We got exactly the guy we thought we were getting in all phases of the game, even in the clubhouse," he said. "We knew he would be a good leader."