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Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Baseball rules for an evening in January

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 26. 2013 9:25PM

Watch closely when Sam Fuld steps into the batter's box against the Red Sox. The Durham native doesn't hit for power, but he knows his strengths: hitting fastballs. The Rays outfielder has a short, compact swing that is capable of squaring up pitches with uncanny precision.

During the game in which Mariners ace Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game against the Rays last season, Fuld had the best swing all day against him, ripping a letters-high fastball directly at right fielder Eric Thames.

Breaking pitches? Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be calling for lots of curveballs and sliders when Fuld steps to the plate during Boston's first homestand of 2013.

Fuld and Saltalamacchia joked about that potential scenario during the inaugural Seacoast Mavericks Hot Stove Dinner in Portsmouth, a first-class event held Friday night at the Residence Inn Harbor Events Center.

"You know, I was going to tell an embarrassing story about Salty, but I better not. He'll be calling the game, and I won't see any fastballs at all," said Fuld, who grew up on the Seacoast and attended Phillips Exeter Academy before going to Stanford University.

Fuld and Saltalamacchia, who share the same agent, Jim Munsey, helped raise money for local charities while entertaining a crowd of 300 at the baseball dinner. Dinner tickets ($80) sold out. And Salty wasn't grilled too badly about the disastrous 2012 season.

"It's nice to interact with the people who watch you play and root for you," he said. "The fans are diehards in the Northeast. They were just as disappointed as we were last season."

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"When he was asked about Terry Francona's new book, "Francona: The Red Sox Years," Salty said he hadn't read it. The only manager worth talking about was John Farrell, plucked from the Blue Jays and returning to Boston, where he served as pitching coach and worked directly with Saltalamacchia.

Most would agree the Red Sox were a much better team with Farrell in the dugout than without him.

"I respect him a lot. I think he's become a great manager. I know our pitchers are eager and ready to go. They respect Farrell from working with him in the past," Saltalamacchia said.

Salty already has talked with Farrell about the catching situation in Boston. Newcomer Mike Napoli, who has caught more than 500 games in the majors, will be playing mostly at first base. The catching job is Salty's to lose. Ryan Lavarnway, David Ross and Napoli are among the options for behind the dish.

Fuld avoided salary arbitration and signed a $725,000 contract earlier this month. The 31-year-old enjoyed one last full weekend in New Hampshire before heading to Florida and preparing for the start of spring training in two weeks.

"This really hits home for me. I'm seeing a lot of friends and familiar faces," said Fuld, who played catch earlier in the day with his father, Ken Fuld, a dean at the University of New Hampshire.

"As long as you love the game and you're having fund, that is the most important thing," Sam Fuld said. "That's probably the biggest key to success because if you love the game, you're going to work harder. It doesn't matter so much what uniform you're wearing as long as you're practicing and playing hard."

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FISHER TRACKS: After spending four professional seasons as a middle infielder, Justin Jackson converted to a full-time outfielder the last two seasons with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. And now another change.

Jackson, a supplemental first-round pick in 2007, will be a pitcher from the moment he reports to spring training with the Blue Jays. The 24-year-old still has plenty of time to convert. Former Fisher Cats shortstop Sergio Santos, an Eastern League Home Run Derby champion in 2007, was age 25 when he switched from infielder to reliever. Santos will begin the 2013 as a setup man in the Blue Jays' bullpen.

Jackson, a career .230 hitter in the minors, already possesses the arm strength and frame (6-foot-2) of a pitcher.

"At the end of the day, I didn't want to regret not using my number one tool - my arm," said Jackson, who hesitates to predict the velocity on his fastball this season. "Right now, I'm just trying to build a foundation with my mechanics, and we'll see about that (velocity) in the spring."

The Ashville, N.C., native said it wasn't easy giving up the dream of being a position player.

"The real dream is to play in the major leagues," he said, "and I truly believe this is what I was supposed to be doing."

<i>Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is <a href=''></a>. Twitter: <a href='!/graymatter11'>@graymatter11</a>.</i>

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