<
>
Insider

An arm and a leg

The bullpens in Fenway Park are separated from the right-field stands above by only a short chain-link fence. So it's not unusual for Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox closer and people person, to chat up fans and flip a few balls over the barrier.

Emboldened by Papelbon's approachability, or perhaps what Mike Timlin calls "a couple of cups of courage," a fan wandered down to the fence one day with an odd request. "Hey, Papelbon," the guy called, slurring his words, "will you sign my leg?" Before the pitcher could respond, a prosthesis landed at his feet. "Oh my god, dude!" Papelbon shouted. Of course, he and the other relievers dutifully signed the right thigh, handed it back and gawked as the guy attached it to his hip and walked away. "The fans were hooting and hollering," Papelbon says. "It was wild."

So it goes for the 25-year-old rookie from Baton Rouge, who's embracing his role as one of the most important players in the AL East race. Of his first 29 saves, 13 protected victories for aces Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling. Like them, Papelbon seems born to his role. "He loves the pressure of playing in Boston," says his mother, Sheila, who was a pitcher on LSU's first women's softball team, in 1977. When Jonathan was in eighth grade, he challenged his mom to pitch to him. "I struck him out," she says. "He didn't like that."