Mo Vaughn stepped into the cage and took his cuts. The familiar sound of bat striking ball drowned out all the complaints.

Throughout a rocky offseason, he had given his critics plenty of ammunition: He was too fat, his contract talks were dragging and he faced a March 2 court date for his drunken driving arrest.But on Sunday, the Boston Red Sox slugger was smiling and swinging a bat.

"Time will tell what's going to happen," he said, "but, regardless, when you get in that batter's box you don't worry about anything else."

That's where he does his best work.

He hit .315 last season, his fourth consecutive year over .300. He had 35 homers and 96 RBIs despite a knee injury that kept him on the disabled list for 23 days.

But when the season ended, he had just one year left on his contract. And while the Red Sox have given long-term contracts to Pedro Martinez, John Valentin, Jeff Frye and Troy O'Leary, the Vaughn talks have gone slowly.

He said Sunday negotiations are at "square one" with no offer on the table to extend his three-year, $18.6 million deal. He reportedly sought a five-year, $50 million contract, but the team wanted fewer years.

"He's a key factor for our ballclub," manager Jimy Williams said. "It's not like he can go anywhere (now) or wants to go anywhere."

Vaughn said he's optimistic but it wouldn't be a big deal to him if there was no extension before the contract expired. General manager Dan Duquette has said he won't negotiate during the season.

"It always will be my first choice to remain here," Vaughn said. "I'm not trying to push this thing any-way at all."

He acknowledged that the Red Sox might be waiting for the disposition of his court case.

"I hope not to be led out in handcuffs," Vaughn said with a grin.

His truck rolled over after striking an empty Ford Escort parked in the breakdown lane of Interstate 95 in Norwood, Mass., on Jan. 9 at 2:15 a.m.

He pleaded not guilty to operating under the influence of alcohol and failing to stay in his lane and was released without bail.

He knows it could have been a lot worse.

"I am fortunate to be standing here," he said while surrounded by reporters and cameramen outside the Red Sox spring-training clubhouse. "I'll just wait until March 2 . . . get back here with the ballclub and start going at some people."

He refused medical treatment and was uninjured in the crash. But his appearance in court raised some questions about his physical condition.

He looked fat.

On Sunday, barely a month later, he was muscular and appeared trimmer than he had in some time.

"I heard I was an All-Pro offensive lineman at one point in time this winter," he said. "All of a sudden, (people said) he doesn't work hard, he's out of shape, he's this and he's that.

"I think you know, looking at me today, that I might be a pretty good outside linebacker instead of an offensive lineman."

He knows, though, that he brought some criticism upon himself with the accident.

"I'm a man's man, and I accept responsibility for all the things that I do," he said. "When you bring that type of situation in your life, you're going to take some character hits."

He plans to win back whatever fans he might have lost with his work at the plate and said he'd like to do that in Boston for many years.

"Now, more than ever, it's a time to go out and play your game," he said. "I gave something for people to talk about in this situation, but, the fact of the matter is, my bat can do some pretty good talking too."