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Francisco Cordero elated to be back in uniform for chance to prove himself

02.18.14 at 2:06 pm ET
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Longtime closer Francisco Cordero spent his first day in a Red Sox uniform on Tuesday. (WEEI.com)

Longtime closer Francisco Cordero spent his first day in a Red Sox uniform on Tuesday. (WEEI.com)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Francisco Cordero doesn’t have to be here. The 38-year-old already had a career long on experience (14 seasons in the majors), accomplishments (the three-time All-Star’s 329 saves are the 13th most of all time, and the most ever by a pitcher from the Dominican) and money (his career earnings of greater than $66 million included a four-year, $46 million payout from 2008-11 with the Reds that represented the third-largest guarantee ever received by a closer).

But Cordero didn’t want to walk away from the game. The right-hander last pitched in 2012, enduring the worst year of his career (3-8, 7.55 ERA) for the Blue Jays and Astros. He hadn’t planned to retire after that year, but no one offered him a contract — either a major league or even a minor league deal — for 2013. The forced year away from the game was challenging for the veteran.

“In 2013, it was tough for me to wake up every morning just being home in the Dominican. I talked to myself and said I think I can still pitch, but it’s not up to me,” said Cordero. “It was hard. It was real hard. I know that 2012 wasn’t a good season. It was a bad season for me. But I didn’t think that was going to be the case — not even a minor league contract.”

But Cordero was determined to position himself for another shot at the big leagues. And so, the right-hander went on a strict diet, replacing his favored rice and beans with salads while continuing his conditioning, the result being a loss of 30 pounds from when he last pitched in the big leagues in 2012. He pitched for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, recording a 2.13 ERA in 16 games (12 2/3 innings) with seven strikeouts and four walks, putting himself on the radar of a few teams, including the Marlins and Orioles.

But from afar, Cordero had taken delight in watching the Red Sox play in 2013, and so when the reigning champions called, he jumped at the opportunity to sign a minor league deal that will include a $1 million salary if he reaches the big leagues. (The deal does not include an opt-out, but there is believed to be an understanding between the Sox and the pitcher that if he is not going to break camp with the club, the team will allow him to leave if there is a better opportunity elsewhere.) When Cordero put on a Red Sox uniform today and threw a bullpen session on Tuesday morning, the experience was a thrilling one, both for the fact of his return to the field and the organization with whom he is hoping to earn a big league spot.

“I was so excited that I took a picture of myself,” Cordero acknowledged. “I felt like a young kid, like a young boy. I took a picture of myself early when I put on a uniform just to send it back home to my family so they could see it. I know they were all happy when they got the news. Even though there’s nothing guaranteed, just the fact that they gave me a minor league deal and a chance to make the team, everyone was so happy. I feel like I’ve never played before, like this is my first year and I’ve got to work hard to make the team. I am really happy.

“First day here working out, even yesterday when I came in, I felt like I was here before,” he added. “I said, ‘This is not a team. This is a family.’ That’s how everyone is here. You could see that when they were playing on TV — every game with the Boston Red Sox, they come out and played and gave 100 percent on the field, but at the same time you saw that they have a family here.”

Cordero understands that he’s guaranteed nothing. If he’s not better than the other bullpen options in camp, he won’t make the big league roster based on pedigree. He’s at peace with that fact. In 2014, all he wanted was an opportunity to let his abilities and performance determine if he’s capable of continuing to pitch.

“I’m going to work and try to make the team. But I’ve prepared myself for whatever. I know that this is not when I was 23, 21, 30. I’m going to be 39 years old,” said Cordero. “I’m glad to be here. I’m so happy to be here, just to be able to put on a uniform everyday in spring training and go out and prove myself, I’m trying to prove to myself — and Boston of course — that I can still pitch, show them that I can still get people out.”

Cordero was non-committal when asked about the possibility of pitching in the minors if he doesn’t make the team. For now, he’s focused on that goal of being with the Sox in Baltimore as of March 31; he can re-evaluate at the end of spring training if he doesn’t do so. Still, after struggling with his health in 2012 (when he pitched for current Sox manager John Farrell in Toronto), he said that physically, he feels as good as he did as a 22-year-old. That, in turn, has him excited for the mere chance to prove himself this spring.

“I can say it’s not about the money. I love this game. I’ve been in this game for so long. My first time was in 1994. Twenty years later? It’s just a love of the game. I really love this game. I have a passion for it. I want to keep pitching until I think I can’t pitch. When I see it as being over, you have a good career and they say it’s time to go home, then I’ll say I’m going home. But that’€™s not how I feel right now.

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