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There's plenty on hot stove plate

Competition for players, headlines

NEW ORLEANS -- Meeting in a hotel corridor with reporters early last evening during a brief respite from his round of talks with teams, agents, owners, his brother, and his girlfriend, Theo Epstein made what he considered a reasonable request. "Could you please give the Patriots the headlines they deserve tomorrow?" he asked.


It's never that easy, of course, in Red Sox country, where some half-asleep folks might have awakened yesterday morning to US Ambassador Paul Bremer saying, "We got him," and concluded that the Sox' pursuit of Alex Rodriguez had finally been brought to a satisfying conclusion.

A big-time shortstop did dominate the news at the winter meetings yesterday, but it wasn't A-Rod and it wasn't Nomar Garciaparra, though Baltimore's signing of Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million package last night could have an impact on whatever serious attempts the Sox make at signing Garciaparra to a contract extension.

The Sox, remember, informed Garciaparra within the last couple of weeks that the four-year, $60 million deal he'd turned down last March was off the table, replaced by a four-year, $48 million proposal that reflected, the team said, changing market conditions. That's what set off Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, whose broadside at the Sox last week was answered in kind by John W. Henry, a man who seldom raises his voice above the low end of the decibel scale.

Tejada's deal, which included a $12 million signing bonus, contained a big chunk of deferred money -- $8 million of the signing bonus -- so it remains to be seen whether the Sox are persuaded that it should make much of a difference in how they approach Garciaparra. Especially since Garciaparra's return still seems no more than a fallback plan in case the A-Rod deal falls through, and there were signs aplenty that the Sox' talks with Texas were alive and kicking.

It won't happen before the official end of the meetings today, and it might not happen until next week, but the courtship of Rodriguez appears to be headed toward consummation.

Epstein acknowledged he'd talked yesterday with Sox owner Henry, who is brokering the A-Rod deal directly with Rangers owner Tom Hicks. "But I also talked to my brother [Paul] at the Patriots game, my girlfriend, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner," Epstein said, maintaining his posture of not tipping his hand regarding any activity on the A-Rod front.

Yes, he said, he'd taken note of the Tejada signing. "We always monitor other signings, but one signing doesn't make the market," Epstein said. "Every signing is significant. You can't say the Andy Pettitte signing is significant and Miguel Tejada isn't. But every signing has its own particular set of circumstances. Baltimore has had a difficult time attracting [elite] free agents."

No more. The Orioles, having dumped a load of bad money this year, came into the winter determined to make a big impact after six straight fourth-place finishes in the American League East, and in addition to adding Tejada, the 2002 American League MVP, the Orioles appeared certain of adding free agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez, the perennial Gold Glover and de facto MVP of the World Series-winning Marlins, by the end of the night and were still in the bidding for All-Star outfielder Vladi Guerrero, the biggest prize on the free agent market.

"Our division just got tougher," said new Sox manager Terry Francona, who knows Tejada well, having been bench coach on Tejada's former team, the A's.

Indeed. Even the teams operating with smaller budgets, like J.P. Ricciardi's Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, have made improvements, the D-Rays weighing in yesterday with the signing of Gold Glove outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. and defensive whiz Rey Sanchez at second base.

The Sox won their season series with the Orioles and Blue Jays by only a game in each instance, and the competition just got tougher.

It's not always about just A-Rod and Nomar, the Sox and Yankees. On this day, it was about Miguel and Pudge and the Birds, and yes, the Patriots.

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