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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Burks decision a sign of times

There were tremors when Ellis Burks spoke yesterday, and they weren't there just because Burks was nervous. You could also feel a reputation, as old as Fenway Park itself, being shaken lifelessly to the ground.

Burks, who said he is looking for just 300 at-bats in 2004, walked away from a more lucrative offer in Seattle to strengthen the bench in Boston. And that's not even the most refreshing part of the story. What's significant is that he wanted to be here -- with this team and in this city -- because he feels it represents the best personal and professional mix for him.

Anyone who knows just a little about the history of Boston and the Red Sox understands how powerful that is.

Boston is constantly forced into a defensive position when it comes to African-American athletes. Whenever one of them says he doesn't want to play here (which Burks did in 2000), new questions and old accusations fly. Is the city too hostile for certain people? Did Sox ownership of yesteryear inflict wounds that today's group cannot heal?

For Burks, who spent the first six of his 17 big-league seasons here, the answers are no and no.

"Everything grows with time," the 39-year-old Burks said, shortly after holding up his new No. 25 jersey.

He said he always liked New England and frequently tells friends how comfortable it can be here. His refusal to return in 2000, he said, was a numbers decision. He was on a winning team in San Francisco and he thought that team had a chance to win the World Series.

As for New England, he has ties in the region. He met his wife in Connecticut in 1985, his in-laws still live outside of Hartford, and he has a lot of good memories from the late 1980s and early '90s, when he lived in North Providence, Malden, and Brookline.

There were problems as well. He never said there weren't.

"But my problems were more with isolated things in the city than with the team," he said. "Like the Charles Stuart case. It was amazing to me that there were people walking around the city being accused of things that they did not do."

In 1988, Stuart shot his pregnant wife and said a black man was the culprit. "Everyone was looking for a 6-foot-1-inch black man in a warmup suit," Burks said. "So I didn't wear any warmup suits."

Burks believes many things have changed since then. Boston has changed. The Sox have changed. Burks has changed, too.

Back in his mid-20s, when his knees didn't ache as much as they do now, he said he took a lot of things for granted. He didn't work at his game as much, and he didn't always do small things to help preserve his body.

He is a Sox again because he is a conscientious researcher and thinker. When he was deciding between Seattle and Boston, he spent two days on the Internet comparing statistics. He studied pitching staffs, lineups, ballparks, and cities.

Boston was the best fit.

You didn't always hear that sentence from athletes who share Burks's complexion. Indeed, everything grows with time.

Burks is no longer No. 12, part of the city's layout has been altered with the Big Dig, ownership has respect for diversity, and the 13-year-old kid who watched Burks play center field in 1987 is now the general manager of the Sox.

Theo Epstein is excited about the Burks signing because it now gives the Sox a legitimate hitting threat off the bench. To be charitable, Jeremy Giambi just didn't work out. David McCarty had a couple of big hits down the stretch, but he is known for his defense. Burks can hit lefties, he can DH, and he says he can contribute at first and in the outfield.

"He was a very underrated player in Boston," Epstein said. "Have you seen his numbers the last five years? He has been an offensive force."

If you exclude last season, when Burks had an elbow injury from which he has recovered, you can see the truth in Epstein's words. From 1999-2002, Burks did not have a season in which he hit below .280 or rapped fewer than 24 home runs.

But he did mention playing first base. Has he ever played it?

"Nope," he said. "But I'm willing to try."

This time around, things have to be different for Burks. He was just a kid when he was billed as the next great player in team history. He said yesterday that, at times, the pressure overwhelmed him.

Today he is known as a talented player who can calm any chaotic clubhouse. He is here because he is a classy professional who wants to win a World Series before he retires -- and he will most likely retire after this season. He had a few people smiling when he talked about the championship misses in his career.

He lost as a Little Leaguer, he lost the state championship in high school, he missed out to Jay Buhner's team in junior college, and there were the '88 and '90 playoff losses with the Sox.

There is no doubt that he is sincere about the reconfigured city and franchise he sees. It's one thing to take less money to go to a place you're not comfortable. It's something entirely different to bring your wife and four children -- ages 4 to 14 -- to a difficult city and region.

And that's the point. Burks doesn't see this place as being more or less difficult than any other city in the United States. When you talk to Burks, it's clear that he is flexible, thoughtful, and mature. After a lot of shameful years, you can say the same thing about his new employer.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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