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BOB RYAN

This is a benchmark move by Little

CHICAGO -- Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox at US Cellular Field: David Ortiz was batting fourth as the DH. Gabe Kapler was playing left field and batting ninth.

Still no Manny? Guess he hasn't sufficiently recovered from that bout of pharyngitis.

Uh, no. Manny Ramirez, in fact, told manager Grady Little that he was now ready to DH.

And? "My decision," said the skipper, "was to wait."

Oooh, this is getting interesting. Let's go over this one more time so there is no confusion on anyone's part. The $160 million man, who leads the Red Sox in home runs (31) and is second in runs batted in (90), a guy that people who don't have to live with him think is one of the most valuable players in the league, declares his physical readiness for a game in the heat of a pennant race, and the manager says, "No, thank you"? Is that what's going on here?"

Ab-so-lutely.

"I like the way our club has responded the past few days," explained Little. "I'm putting the team out there I feel gives us the best chance to win tonight."

Oooh, this is really getting interesting.

Still don't get it? The manager pulled a Popeye. He's reached the that's-all-I-can-stand-I-can't-stands-no-more phase with his juvenile slugger. Manny Ramirez has been benched.

The implication was that this might not be a one-day thing, either.

"I've got to see a game that day when he figures into the lineup that gives us a good chance to win," cooed Little, who has just taken the most important step of his managerial career.

"It's very simple," said one insider. "Grady figures that if he didn't do this, he would lose every other guy in that clubhouse."

The dramatic events of Monday in Philadelphia brought everything to a head. That 4-hour-4-minute epic comeback win was the kind of game that gets remembered when and if a team makes the postseason as a galvanizing conquest. Manny may have legitimately been too sick to pinch hit when called upon (so why was he even in uniform?), but it played even worse when contrasted with the minor heroics of bit players such as Doug Mirabelli, Lou Merloni, and Damian Jackson.

People had a difficult time reconciling Manny's pregame buoyancy with his refusal to participate in this game. When all the happenings since last Thursday were lumped together, the manager came to the conclusion that he had a clubhouse full of guys who cared deeply about winning and who could be counted on to do anything that would help the team, and one high-priced, enigmatic slugging outfielder/DH who -- and there is no other way to put this -- just doesn't seem to care.

And still doesn't. When Little gave Manny the news that he wouldn't be playing, Manny didn't react at all. And far from being humbled or chastened by the snub (for once the word has relevance in a sports discussion), Manny was his normal goofball self during the pregame rituals.

The manager addressed the media at a pregame dugout session, during which he was uncharacteristically cryptic.

Did he talk to any of the other players before arriving at his decision to, as Sam Goldwyn would say, include Manny out? "I don't have to."

Did he know what he was going to do before he even arrived in Chicago?

"I had pretty much decided last night, but I did sleep [on it]."

Was the refusal to pinch hit a big factor in his decision?

"That was part of it."

How did Manny construe the decision?

"You'll have to ask him."

How would Grady characterize Manny's reaction to the news?

"How would I characterize it? I don't know how to answer that question. Some guys have the same reaction all the time."

(Aside to Grady bashers: Are you feeling better about your skipper now?)

And again and again:

"Our ball club that we've got in that clubhouse every day, they depend on me to put out a lineup that gives us the best chance to win tonight, and that's what I've done.

"There were a lot of factors in my decision. All of 'em lead to the idea of putting a team on the field that can lead to a win."

So now we know exactly what the Red Sox bought for their $160 million. Manny Ramirez is a gifted hitter of baseballs, of whom it can be said that he simply does not get "it," whatever that elusive "it" is. He has no business playing in Boston, New York, Chicago, or any locale in which the fans invest their time, money, and passion in the local baseball team. He is a frustrating and maddening figure, because, despite his recent actions (or nonactions), we all know deep in our heart of hearts that if there is one person in the employ of the Boston Red Sox who is capable of hitting a two-out, two-strike winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, it is Manny Ramirez, to whom, it is distinctly possible, said wallop would mean no more than if he hit a solo, seventh-inning home run against the Twins at City of Palms Park on March 15.

The Indians, for whom he once drove in an ungodly 165 runs, know this and are chortling over this turn of events. Manny was never happier or more productive than when buried in the middle of that awesome late '90s Tribe lineup. They never had to depend on Manny, not with Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and the ever-manacing David Justice around. Manny was dessert.

That's the issue now. The Red Sox recognize his great talent, but they now know he is personally unreliable. And by the Red Sox, I mean the players. That's why Grady did the right thing in their eyes. Benching Manny sends a larger message of appreciation and gratitude to the guys who put on that gritty effort in Philadelphia, as well as several others only slightly less dramatic this season.

"No doubt," confirmed one veteran.

Modern baseball managing isn't about game strategy. It's about preventing, or putting out, brush fires. It's about creating a climate that permits a team to win, not just today, but tomorrow and the day after. On his Sept. 2 report card, we must award Grady Little an A-plus.

The fact that this team won and Gabe Kapler had the winning home run? Exquisite. That's all, exquisite.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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