Kapler closing in on return to action

Kapler anticipating return to Fenway Park

There will come a time, perhaps in about a month, when Gabe Kapler will step back into that batter's box at Fenway Park with the crowd roaring and the theme song of the popular 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter" bellowing out over the sound system.

Kapler likely will doff his helmet to the crowd, much like he did following his return from Japan last July, take a few deep breaths and return to the business of being a baseball player.

"I'll tell you, I visualize it every day," Kapler said of his official return to Fenway. "But I'm taking it really step by step. I'm not getting too far ahead of myself. I recognize that it's a small, small instance. It's not a huge deal in the scheme of things."

In actuality, the moment is one Kapler should allow himself to savor when it comes.

It has been a long road back from Sept. 14, 2005, when Kapler, a few steps past second base after a home run by Tony Graffanino, ruptured his left Achilles tendon.

At that time, Kapler was wheeled off on a stretcher, unable to complete his trek around the bases. Now he is trotting, jogging and sprinting on his own, not that any of it came easily.

All of the hard work landed him in Fort Myers, Fla., on Thursday for a stint in extended Spring Training.

"I'd love to get a look on some of those young kids' faces when they see the way he plays," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think it will be a real eye-opener. I think every young player will be running down to first base, hard."

Kapler knows no other way. So it is in Florida these next few days where Kapler, one of the most popular and respected utility players the Red Sox have ever had, is playing competitive baseball again for the first time since September.

"It's a big step," said Kapler, who is 31. "That competition is coming, and that's putting me in a different mindset, so I know I'm looking forward to that."

He is a competitor's competitor, a man who has rarely left a baseball field with a clean uniform. And that is why, after just 240 games played in a Boston Red Sox uniform, Kapler is embraced like a man who has been around for a decade.

"It's flattering. I don't always feel deserving of it, but it represents what I believe the fans of a city like this want, which is effort all the time," Kapler said. "I think that Bostonians are very prideful, passionate people, and they want to see the people that come into their home behave in the same manner."

What teammates, club executives and fans have so respected about Kapler since his original arrival in June 2003 is his character. Never has he shown it more than over these last few trying months.

"It's flattering. I don't always feel deserving of it, but it represents what I believe the fans of a city like this want, which is effort all the time."
-- Gabe Kapler, on his support from Boston fans

When Kapler's Achilles gave out on him, the possibility he suffered a career-ending injury was loosely thrown out in various places. Kapler heard it, but never once thought it.

"The days following [the injury], immediately I just started thinking, 'What great thing is coming from this?' I never thought like, 'Oh, what's going to happen to me?' or 'Oh no, how is this going to turn out?' I always feel like something happens, and then something great happens as a result," said Kapler.

"Every kind of, I don't want to say negative, but every life experience leads up to something [better]. Did you ever see the movie, Sliding Doors, where she gets on the train and half of the movie is what her life looks like had she not made that train. I kind of look at, 'What is my life going to look like based on this experience? What would it have looked like based on a different one?' Kind of all the ups and downs -- for me, that's exciting. What is behind this curtain?"

Behind the curtain of the home clubhouse at Fenway Park, it's hard to tell that Kapler has been on the disabled list. Where injured players so often look out of place and isolated, Kapler has interacted freely like the team leader he is.

It is often you'll see Kapler grab a chair and sit in a circle in the clubhouse and talk baseball and life with Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, Doug Mirabelli and Tim Wakefield, guys he has fought so many fierce battles with over the last few seasons. But you'll also see that he has already gotten to know newcomers like Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta and Coco Crisp.

"I can't even begin to tell you how important my teammates have been -- because they've been, in this clubhouse, welcoming to me," Kapler said. "It's not always like that with a guy who is not able to contribute regularly. Sometimes guys have a tendency to kind of fall into the background and not have a lot of interaction. I've really been treated like part of this. I'm so grateful to the guys in this room for making me feel like that."

Soon, he will be a part of it again. And then he won't have the awkward feeling that has, at times, resided within him on game days as he watches his teammates getting revved up during the pregame hours.

"The buildup to the game, that's been something that I've missed," Kapler said. "The part of the day right here where you're looking forward to stepping on the field."

There is natural curiosity over whether Kapler will have the same type of speed and explosiveness he had before the injury. For he is a realist: He knows that his element of speed and aggressiveness are part of what have enabled him to carve out his niche in Major League Baseball.

"At this point, I'm very confident," Kapler said. "And the reason I am is that I've made some adjustments in my training that I think have [helped] -- I've shifted to a little bit more of a cardio-style workout. I never did that before. And my body is reacting to that. I'm not saying that I'm sure that it's going to be as good or better, but I'm saying, from a confidence standpoint, at this point, I feel like it's going to come back, and maybe come back a little better."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.