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Hold your fire for a second

Before unloading, consider this . . .

No one wants to hear about it -- the pain remains too fresh -- but there is another side to the Grady Little debate. Would people be as inclined to fire Little today if the Sox had been blown out in Game 7, if Pedro Martinez had been knocked out of the box in the first inning instead of the eighth?

What if Jorge Posada's broken-bat popup is caught by Todd Walker on the infield dirt instead of falling in shallow center field? Does Little get fired then?

What if Posada had gotten his game-tying hit off Alan Embree or Mike Timlin? Do the same people who are touting statistical evidence that Martinez loses his effectiveness after 100 pitches scream that Posada was batting only .191 lifetime against Martinez, with a stunning 29 strikeouts in 47 at-bats, and how could Little have lifted Pedro? Does Little get fired then?

What if Martinez gets out of the eighth inning still ahead by a couple of runs, gets pulled for Mike Timlin or Scott Williamson in the ninth, and the Sox lose? Does Little get fired then?

What if Little had played it by the book in the eighth, and Embree and Timlin and Williamson can't hold the lead? Would the same people who killed Little all season for having a quick hook with Martinez be saying today that Little shouldn't have pulled his ace, that it's push-button managing based on pitch counts? Does Little get fired then?

Does anyone really believe that Martinez talked Little into leaving him in the game? Or is it more likely that Little knew, even as he was going to the hill, that he would leave Martinez in the game, that pitching coach Dave Wallace and bench coach Jerry Narron and catcher Jason Varitek had not given him any reason to do otherwise? Varitek, when asked if he expected Martinez to come out for the eighth, said, "No question."

Call me a Little apologist. That's still kinder than the incredible array of names being hurled at a man who managed for 16 years in the minor leagues and two seasons in the toughest big-league environment there is, and apparently still knows less about the game than everyone managing from the comfort of their living rooms or their seats in the press box.

In this rush to judgment to banish Little, shouldn't someone make the case that Little just might have had something to do with the fact that the Sox even made it to Game 7 of the ALCS, that the Sox and Yankees played 26 times and it took extra innings in the 26th game to determine which team was better, and that winning manager Joe Torre, who has four Series rings, ranked outlasting Little's Sox the greatest achievement of his career, even more than winning it all?

Apparently, all those comeback wins the Sox had this season, all the times they picked themselves up when things looked their darkest, all those times this club didn't lose faith in itself -- even when it was down, two games to none, to Oakland -- Little had nothing to do with that. But lose Game 7, and that all falls on Little's head. He's Gump, he's The Idiot, he's the guy who choked when the spotlight was most intense.

And maybe that's what Sox ownership is thinking these days, too. Little was at Fenway Park for more than six hours Friday, and neither Larry Lucchino nor John Henry said anything about whether they wanted him back next season. Lucchino asked him about what they should do with his coaching staff. Little said he couldn't answer that when he didn't even know his own status for next season.

Little was back at the ballpark yesterday. Perhaps someone -- general manager Theo Epstein? -- will let him know whether he has a tomorrow in Boston.

If Little's decision was so blatantly cut and dried, why didn't a single Sox player pull aside a writer, and either publicly or privately barbecue Little?

And ask yourselves this: If the Sox do decide to can Little, who will replace him? Bobby Valentine? Jim Fregosi? Bruce Bochy? And what if the new man, for whatever reason, falls short of even making the postseason? Do you fire him, too?

There's a school of thought in the Nation that believes the Sox accomplished what they did this season not because of Little but in spite of him. Those are the people who base those claims on their analysis of Little's in-game decisions, and have no knowledge nor feel for the truly hard part of managing -- creating an environment in which players on a daily basis can come to work and perform at their highest level. The special chemistry that this team had? Little was the one who did the mixing. He wasn't popular in the clubhouse because he was a nice guy and merely did the players' bidding. He was popular in the clubhouse because the guys who wanted to win knew that Little's touch gave them the best chance to do so.

So sure, pack Little off to Idaho to be neighbors with Bill Buckner. But be careful what you wish for. You just might be surprised what you get in his place.

Opposing views

More on the Little-Martinez question: Jason Giambi, who hit two home runs off Martinez, both solo shots, was asked if he was surprised to see Martinez come out for the eighth. "Yes and no," Giambi said. "No, because he is such a competitor, I know how he feels. He's their guy, the guy who came over to make that team, who took over for the Rocket. I know he feels that responsibility: `I'm the guy.' I saw his interviews after the game, where he said, `I'm going to take this game.' You've got to respect him for that. I think he felt that this was his defining moment as a Red Sox player. You've got to respect him for that." Hideki Matsui, who hit a double just before Posada's broken-bat, bloop double tied the score, said he wasn't surprised that Little elected to leave Martinez in the game. Asked if he felt Martinez was losing anything in the eighth, Matsui said through an interpreter: "No, I didn't feel that." Martinez's last pitch, his 123d of the night, was clocked at 95 miles an hour, the hardest pitch he threw all night . . . Former Sox and Yankee catcher/DH Jim Leyritz, who played with the Sox when Little was bench coach in '98: "You want to blame him. You really do. At the same time, you have to step back and say, `How did we get this far?' That's one of the things the fans don't see that the players see. One of the reasons that team was so together is what Grady gave those guys. I wouldn't have made it through '98 without Grady keeping me sane." . . . The Red Sox altered their approach to instructional league this fall, cutting back from six weeks to three weeks, playing fewer games, and concentrating on teaching. "There was a lot of one-on-one instruction," Epstein said, "a lot of explaining what it takes to succeed playing for the Red Sox, what kind of attitude and makeup that allows you to succeed at Fenway Park. We taught them using experiences both positive and negative, and told them, `If you're a player with that special makeup to succeed in Boston, you won't be traded. If you're not, you'll probably be traded.' " Finding that makeup, Epstein said, begins with the draft and continues from the time a player puts on the uniform. Vice president of player development Ben Cherington, field coordinator Rob Leary, and special assistant Craig Shipley are in Fort Myers, overseeing the camp.

Heartfelt tribute

Finally, an e-mail sent by Robert Claflin, a reader in Hopkinton, N.H.: "While it would be rewarding to actually win, I believe that most members of the Nation do not appreciate how truly blessed we are. Season after season, the Red Sox provide us with a quality product that most often gives us at least some glimmer of hope deep into the summer. For this we should be grateful. At its heart, baseball is an entertainment. And even though we never win, we cannot possibly complain that we are not always entertained. I wish there was a team statistic, say quality season, similar to a pitcher's quality starts. . . . I don't know the formula, but I do believe that there would be very few teams that would rank as high as the Red Sox. I have had the great fortune to have been at Fenway for at least four of the great moments in Sox history: the final game of the '67 season, Roger's 20-strikeout game, and the two postseason Roger/Pedro classics. How can any other form of entertainment compare? What movie, play, concert, or work of art can possibly compete with these in excitement, passion and joy; both in the moment and through the filter of time? The Red Sox gave us a great gift this year as they have so often in the past. I am grateful to them and thankful I don't live in Milwaukee, San Diego, Montreal, or any of the many other cities who cannot share what it is to be a member of the Nation each and every summer." Mr. Claflin, I can't imagine saying it any better.

And another thing...

Money for nothing

Grady Little was listed for a brief time Friday on eBay. The Internet auction site listed the Sox manager as an "Official Piece of ALCS History" and offered to throw in Cubs manager Dusty Baker for free. "That's two great managers fully capable of bringing your team to within five outs of the World Series and dashing your hearts. Act now!" The item was later removed.

Ghost in the machinery

The day after the Sox lost Game 7 to the Yankees, New York Times columnist Harvey Araton visited Babe Ruth's gravesite in Hawthorne, N.Y. Someone had sent a hot pizza to the site on the day of the game, reported Araton, who also found a bouquet of flowers left by a fan with the note, "Dear Babe, thanks again."

Old man

A Yankees fan to Pedro Martinez, while Martinez was warming up in the bullpen in Yankee Stadium Thursday night: "Look out, Pedro, it's George Burns. He's coming after you." Burns is the beloved comic actor who died just after his 100th birthday. The comment was a sly allusion to Martinez's encounter with Don Zimmer, the Yankees' 72-year-old bench coach.

Big in Japan

First baseman Julio Zuleta, who was in camp with the Sox this spring and opened the season with Pawtucket, delivered a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth for the Daiei Hawks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Japan Series against the Hanshin Tigers.

Compiled by Gordon Edes

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