FORT MYERS, Fla. - Poor Terry Francona. Just as the new Red Sox skipper tried his darndest to downplay the avalanche of interest in his club's little exhibition yesterday with the Yankees, Kevin Millar bounded from the dugout and unleashed a piercing rally cry on his way to batting practice.
``Game 7 rematch, boys!'' Millar hollered. ``Let's go!''
Francona's shoulders slouched. His cover was blown.
``So much for the game not meaning anything,'' he said.
He might have known, of course. The sidewalk in front of City of Palms Park had turned into a temporary bedroom for scores of the ticketless who began gathering at 10 p.m. the night before and slept on concrete for a shot at the 150 remaining tickets (others turned to scalpers, who seemed to have a field day). The press box bulged with more than 150 journalists, all but unprecedented for an otherwise meaningless game the first week of March. Heck, there were even commemorative pins ($6 per keepsake) to mark the strangely historical encounter.
``This is the rematch,'' Manny Ramirez declared in the final hours before the event.
Nearly five months after Aaron ``Bleeping'' Boone broke hearts across New England with his walkoff homer in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the Sox and Yankees tangled again. And the only loser - unless the 11-7 defeat the Sox absorbed in the spectacle counted for anything - may have been a genuine sense of perspective.
Except for those with a sense of humor.
``Manny Ramirez says this is Game 8,'' Millar said as he and the slugger emerged from the clubhouse kitchen. ``If we don't win, it's over.''
Caught up in the carnival, Ramirez then convened a rare impromptu news conference. Seated at Doug Mirabelli's locker with his midday meal - penne pasta with chicken on half the plate, an open-faced tuna sandwich on the other - Ramirez spoke to a gaggle of reporters, with Millar standing on a chair and serving as moderator and occasional interpreter in a session with a vaudevillian flavor. Ramirez began by reporting all was well in his world.
``I feel good, man,'' he said. ``I'm having fun. Whatever happened in the winter, that's in the past. I've got to move on. It's going to be fun when the season starts, playing the Yankees. They have an awesome team. We have a good team. We're going to go from there.''
A reporter asked if Ramirez still wanted to play for the Yankees.
Millar: ``No, you can't ask horse [expletive] questions. Next question.''
Reporter: ``Is it hard for you to hate the Yankees having grown up there?''
Manny: ``Not really, man. This is just a game, man. Everybody is so mad at the Yankees because they win all the time. They're the best team out there. We're just trying to go out there and compete.''
Millar: ``Next question.''
Reporter: ``Is your swing where you want it?''
Manny: ``I don't know. I don't want to peak too soon.''
Millar, clutching his own plate of pasta, elaborated.
``Last year, he peaked too early in spring training,'' Millar said. ``He hit about .560. This year, we don't want him around that area.''
Reporter: ``Are you looking forward to 19 games with the Yankees this year?''
Ramirez: ``Not really, man. I don't even think about playing the Yankees that much. If we have to play them 26 times again, we'll just go and play.''
A ridiculous reporter: ``If [Yankee starter Jose] Contreras throws behind you today, will you charge the mound?''
Millar: ``That's not a good question. Stupid question. Next question.''
Reporter: ``How do you feel about batting third this season?''
Ramirez: ``I don't know, man. I haven't done it in a while. I'm just going to go out there and have my confidence on and keep going.''
Reporter: ``Are you looking forward to the season?''
Ramirez: ``We're family here. Everybody is trying together to reach the same goal, that's to win the World Series. Whatever happened in the winter, that's in the past.''
Millar: ``One more question. Then we're going to go eat.''
A reporter asked for Ramirez's reaction to the Yankees acquiring Alex Rodriguez.
Ramirez: ``I think that was good for him because he was trying to get out of Texas somehow. Now he's with the best team in the American League. That's good for baseball, especially because he was born in New York, so it's going to be real good for him.''
Finally, a reporter asked about Ramirez saying he felt in December as if he had nine toes in Texas.
Millar: ``He's a Red Sox. That's a dumb question. He's got 10 toes right here.''
Across the room, Curt Schilling held court.
``Manny is everything you guys said he wasn't,'' Schilling told reporters from across the country. ``He's here early, he works hard. You don't hit like Manny hits without putting time and effort in. But the rest of it, what I've read and what I've heard, a lot of it was just not true.''
Enter Millar, who playfully riffed on an episode last week in which Schilling threw behind him in batting practice after Millar had reminded Schilling about taking him deep years earlier.
``Why did you throw at Millar's head the other day!'' Millar shouted. ``That was a horse [expletive] pitch.'
Schilling, returning the joke, yelled back, ``It was right where it needed to be because it was by your [butt]. Your [butt], your head, the same thing.''
Yet Schilling maintained perspective amid the jocularity. He said the craziness surrounding the Yankee visit had not deterred the Sox from their spring agenda.
``We're in the first week of spring training games,'' he said. ``There's a lot of guys trying to get a lot of things accomplished. It's neat to have this kind of excitement around the game, but it is what it is.''
What it ended up being was a marvelous start by the Sox as Bronson Arroyo blanked the Yankees for three innings and Contreras coughed up four runs (only one earned) on a run-scoring single by Bill Mueller, a two-run double by Millar, and a solo homer by Pokey Reese. Derek Jeter's error on Gabe Kapler's grounder in the first cleared the way for the three unearned runs.
Then it all came apart as Jason Shiell surrendered six runs and Ed Yarnall four more. But, as Schilling suggested, the Sox were more concerned about preparing for Opening Day.
``I was more worried about the popup drill on the back field,'' Francona said, ``than the commemorative pins.''
So, it seemed, was Ramirez. As he left the clubhouse in the sixth inning, he bid farewell to a group of reporters and asked, ``Are we winning?''
After all, it didn't mean a thing.