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Little is able to handle job

He has deft touch with players

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This is what is different about managing in Boston, Grady Little said here yesterday morning. On the last day of the regular season, for a game that had no bearing on the standings other than to determine whether that day's opponent, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, would end a third consecutive season with 100 or more losses, Little was giving his shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, the day off so he could fly to Columbus, Ohio, to see his fiancee, Mia Hamm, play in a women's World Cup soccer match.

"That'll make big news in Boston, but that's just the way it is," Little said. "That's just the way we operate. This guy has given me 156 games of the best baseball you could see, he played nine innings [Saturday], and I gave him the day off today. He's not even in town.

"But inside here, the other players understand. Grady Little understands. I talked about it with the other players up front. It's a done deal. And when Wednesday comes around, he'll be the best player on the field, regardless of what he is doing today. [As it turns out, the US team rested Hamm yesterday.]

"That's the way we operate. We operate openly, and we always try to do what's right to make us the best team we can be. All I try to do is tell the truth the best I know it all the time. That's a policy I try to operate within my life, too. If I try to tell a bunch of lies, I can't keep up with 'em. But if I try to tell the truth, I don't have to remember as much."

In Little's first year as manager of the Red Sox, the team won 93 games and finished out of the playoffs. This season, the Sox have won 95 and will be going to Oakland as the American League's wild-card entry. That's an impressive record for a man whose critics believe is a beat or two behind the game as a strategist.

"This is the only place I've ever managed in the big leagues," said a man who spent 16 years in apprenticeship managing in the minor leagues, "and in the major leagues, winning is not the best thing, winning is the only thing that we go by. Last year, we won 93 games, lost 69 and didn't make it to the postseason. We felt like we lost because we didn't play in October any.

"This year, we won a couple of more games, and we have a chance to play the last baseball game of the year. That's what you're trying to get to, to participate in the last game played this year. When we set out in spring training, we didn't have a goal of how many games we wanted to win. We just wanted that number to be enough to get us to October."

There were times this summer when it was uncertain whether the Sox were going to get there. "I may be the first manager to need rotator-cuff surgery and I didn't even pitch batting practice," Little said last week while sitting in the stands at Fenway Park during a rain delay with Joe Cochran, the equipment manager.

When a visitor gave Little a quizzical look and asked why the operation, Little lifted his arm and pantomimed signaling to the bullpen.

Lots to overcome

But Little survived the unsteadiness of the bullpen, just as he overcame an incident that could have sidetracked the season, when Manny Ramirez's absence from a critical four-game series against the Yankees in Boston because of illness -- a situation made worse when the star slugger skipped a doctor's appointment, then refused to pinch hit in a game in Philadelphia -- became tinder for a flaming controversy.

The Sox won that day in Philadelphia by scoring six runs in the ninth inning, and Little benched Ramirez the next day in Chicago. The Sox won that day, too, in dramatic fashion, won again with Ramirez back in the lineup, and never veered from a beeline to the playoffs.

Did Little feel it necessary, for the sake of the team, to defuse that controversy?

"Yeah," he said, "we handled that the best we could. The guy had been sick. I don't know what his deal was. But it was one of those issues that come around a ball club; we handled it the best we can, and we got on with our business."

Did the fact the club responded so beautifully to meet the challenge validate Little's handling of the situation?

"That's really the only way you can react to any situation, especially if you're a fan, before you judge how something is handled," Little said. "It's no different than me setting up this rotation for the playoffs. If we win, it means that I must have done it right. If we don't, that means I must have done something wrong. That's what you face here on a daily basis."

Ramirez had left the club the day before the All-Star break, calling Little in the predawn hours to say his mother was ill. Pedro Martinez, the team's ace, already had been given permission to return to the Dominican Republic, and, privately, there was grumbling in the Sox clubhouse when Ramirez followed him out of town. "The guy said his mother was sick -- that's all you've got to go by," Little said. "Who is Grady Little or anyone outside of Manny himself to say whether his mother is sick or not and he needed to go check on her? The same kind of people who when he was sick said he wasn't sick.

"Just sit back and watch us play. We play hard. This kid played hard for us the whole season. He had a good year and he showed up today."

Little smiled. "I don't know where he'll be between now and Wednesday," he added, saying that he'd given Ramirez permission to go to his Fort Lauderdale home while the rest of the team flew to Oakland last night.

Could it be safely assumed that Ramirez would be in Oakland for tomorrow's workout?

"We don't assume anything," Little said.

It is an unconventional approach, but it has worked. Why? There are a couple of reasons. These players play for Little.

"I think it's because I treat them with respect and expect nothing back in return but that," he said. "Each individual is different. I treat everyone fairly, but I don't treat everyone the same."

By doing so, doesn't he leave himself open to charges of favoritism? He shook his head. "No," he said. "I communicate. I communicate with everyone."

An excellent mix

It also has worked because Little and GM Theo Epstein agreed that the clubhouse mix needed changing. "We talked about that as early as July and August last year," Little said. "I don't know what Theo's title was then, assistant GM or assistant owner, but he and I talked a lot. One of our main topics of conversation was that especially in our market, you don't need just talent, you need to be able to find a special kind of character to be able to play 162 games in a place like New England.

"We feel like we more than accomplished that, and I think it showed on the field."

To make certain the newcomers like Bill Mueller and David Ortiz and Kevin Millar understood what they were facing, Little said, the team held classes during the spring, preparing them for what to expect from the fans and media. "We had a lot of meetings," he said, "and used the experience of guys who had been here and passed that along to the new guys.

"It's kind of like if you got a young kid and you don't want him to be hit by a car in the street, you don't wait to tell him that until after he's been hit. You tell him, `Don't play in the street before that happens.' "

When the Sox relievers were loudly booed during pregame introductions at the home opener, that didn't come as a surprise to the players, Little said. "We told them it was going to happen," he said. "That's why we had classes. It needed to be done, just like bunting practice in spring training, and it paid off. We tried to eliminate any element of surprise for the players.

"We have passionate fans here. They know when to cheer you when you do good, and they know when to boo you when you screw up. You might not like it. Hell, I might not like it as a manager, but gol'dang, you might deserve it, just like you might deserve a cheer once in a while. But here, there's not much in between."

Little has been working all year without the safety net of a contract for next season. He met with the Sox in March about the one-year options on his contract they held for 2004 and 2005; they told him at the time they would address it at the end of the season. Most teams don't operate that way, choosing to see a one-year option as buyout money, if they choose to let the manager go after the season. The Sox are paying Joe Kerrigan for this season, even though he was fired back in March 2002.

Little has refused to address his contract situation all season. The lack of a contract has invited constant speculation about his status, with many believing an early exit from the playoffs would place his job in jeopardy.

Outwardly, Little has remained unflappable. "I have a lot of confidence in myself," he said. "All we've got to do is win 11 games in the next 26 days [the number of games it will take to win two playoff rounds and the World Series]. We've done that before. We've done that a lot."

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